Bonded Labour in India

Bonded labour, a form of modern slavery, persists as a significant human rights issue in India, despite comprehensive legal frameworks and constitutional protections aimed at its eradication. This exploitative practice involves the manipulation of debt, often inherited or incurred through high-interest loans, to compel individuals to work under inhumane conditions for little or no pay. The recent rescue of fifteen bonded labourers in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, by the district administration highlights the ongoing challenges in combating this deeply entrenched issue.

Historical Context

Historically linked to rural economies, bonded labour has roots in feudal and colonial practices where economically disadvantaged individuals, particularly from marginalized communities, were coerced into working for landlords to repay debts. Over time, this practice has evolved, finding its way into both rural and urban settings, affecting unorganized sectors such as agriculture, brick kilns, stone quarries, and even domestic servitude.

Constitutional and Legal Framework

The Indian Constitution and various legislations reflect India’s commitment to abolishing bonded labour:

  • Article 21 ensures the Right to Life and Personal Liberty.
  • Article 23 explicitly prohibits forced labour, making it a punishable offense.
  • Article 24 prevents child labour in hazardous industries.
  • Article 39 sets directives for the state to ensure the welfare of workers and protect children from exploitation.
Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976

This pivotal act abolished bonded labour across India, emphasizing rehabilitation and the establishment of vigilance committees to monitor enforcement at the district level.

Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour, 2016

This scheme enhances the support provided to freed bonded labourers, offering financial assistance and other aids to facilitate their reintegration into society.

International Obligations and Rankings

India’s commitment to eradicating forced labour is also framed within its international obligations, notably under the Sustainable Development Goal (Target 8.7) and the ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105). Despite these efforts, India’s ranking in the Global Slavery Index underscores the need for significant improvements.

Challenges and Persisting Issues

The resilience of bonded labour in India is attributed to various factors:

  • Lack of awareness among both workers and employers about the illegality and implications of bonded labour.
  • Social and economic biases that normalize such practices.
  • Migratory nature of the workforce, often complicating the tracking and assistance of bonded labourers.
  • Inadequate enforcement of existing laws due to low conviction rates and insufficient coordination among governmental levels.

Measures for Eradication

Eradicating bonded labour requires a multifaceted approach:

  • National campaigns to raise awareness and educate the public on identifying and reporting bonded labour.
  • Strengthening and popularizing helplines and support systems for victims.
  • Enhancing the rehabilitation process to ensure that freed individuals do not return to bondage.
  • Formulating productive schemes for income generation to provide sustainable alternatives to bonded labour.

Synopsis

There is a critical need for continued vigilance, enhanced legal enforcement, and comprehensive rehabilitation efforts to eradicate this form of modern slavery from India. The collaboration between government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and the public is essential to address the root causes and ensure the protection of vulnerable populations from this exploitative practice.


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