Bonded Labour System Abolition and protection of Children

Bonded Labour is also known as slavery or enforced worked is a person’s pledge of their labor or services as safety for the repayment for enforced work or obligation. The services needed to repay the debt and for undefined works. Bonded Labour can be passed on from generation to generation. According to the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the prohibition of Slavery defines enforced work as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.

Bonded or forced labour is prohibited in India by law of the central government. However, the Constitution directly and indirectly prohibits the practice, vide Articles 21, 23 (1) and 24, a specific law that prohibits the practice, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was legislated only in 1976. Despite the statutory prohibition, bonded labour is widely practiced. The worst affected are the children, particularly those from the Dalit community. The practice is so prevalent in the country that even a village in Uttar Pradesh state, Bandhua, literally meaning bonded, is named after the practice.

Bonded labour is known in different names in the country. In the farming sector it is known as Hali in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh; Kaimuti, Janouri, Kamiah and others in Bihar; Gothi in Orissa; Gassi-Gullu in Andhra Pradesh; and Panal Pathiran in Tamilnadu. The practice exists in non-framing sectors like the Devadasi practice of bonded sex workers; and in small-scale industries like firecracker, textile, leather goods manufacturing sectors, brick and tile kilns and granite extraction industries. The most affected by bonded labour in the non-farming industries are the children. There is no credible and collated national statistics available about the number of persons, in particular that of the children, affected by bonded labour in India.

Bonded labour in the farming sector is mostly due to caste-based prejudices practiced against the Dalit communities and due to the absence of a proper land reforms policy. In states like Kerala, where land reforms has been implemented by statute since the past four decades, bonded labour virtually has been eliminated as opposed to states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamilnadu and Karnataka where large extents of lands are still held by families that practice feudal forms of land ownership and labour employment.

Owing to the lack of livelihood options, large number of rural population are forced to work for landlords and eventually end up in perpetual debt traps resulting in entire families and villages ending up as bonded to the landlord for generations. The absence of functioning public health facilities and education opportunities literally push the rural population to work either as bonded labourers or to migrate into urban areas seeking odd jobs.

A large number of children employed as bonded labourers by the non-farming sectors like small-scale textile, firecracker, leather goods manufacturing, brick kilns and granite extraction units are from the families who are subjected to distress migration from the rural villages. In the cities, children from these families are employed as bonded labourers in restaurants and eateries or end up employed as bonded beggars or fall prey to sex trade.

Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act

The Act allows for the state to appoint a district magistrate and officers authorised by him to oversee the legal implementation of the act. It also requires that the state set up vigilance committees in every district or sub-section. These committees are responsible for ensuring the full rehabilitation and recovery of all bonded labourers, defending any suit against a bonded labourer and advising the district magistrate to take action and uphold the law. The Act maintains that burden of proof lies on the creditor to prove a particular debt is not bonded in nature.

Under this act all offences are to be tried by an executive magistrate that has the powers of a second or first class judicial magistrate, appointed by the state government. Companies who commit bonded labour offences are held responsible as well as the person in charge of the conduct of the business are also held responsible. All offences under this act are cognizable and bailable.

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