They are not easy to spot. Working in vegetable patches and on millet fields in India’s southern state of Karnataka, farm labourers caught in debt bondage suffer mainly in silence. But Gopal V has lived with this silence for long enough. Now 44, the son of bonded labourers is on a mission to identify workers trapped in debt bondage – and to make sure they get justice.
“My parents worked endless hours not for money, just food,” Gopal said. “They worked for a landlord in my village, whose house I still can’t enter. He paid them back with a little food, and my father died in bondage.”
Now, he travels across villages around Anekal, near the city of Bengaluru, looking for people like his parents.
There is an urgency to his search, he says, because he wants to “get them out before they die”.
India banned the practice of bonded labour in 1976, but the country is still home to 11.7 million bonded labourers, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The labourers may be working to pay off a loan from their employer, or a debt inherited from a relative.
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Jeevika, a non-profit organisation that works to eradicate bonded labour in the southern state, said it identified 12,811 bonded labourers in Karnataka between 2012 and 2015. Most of them are still waiting for state authorities to give them release certificates and compensation money, it said.
Its founder, Kiran Kamal Prasad, estimates that there are up to 200,000 bonded labourers across Karnataka.
“It is a perennial problem that persists in the agriculture sector,” said Druthi Lakshmi of the state’s rural development department.
“We know they are really poor, illiterate people who often go back to the same landlord for work after they are rescued because the rehabilitation money is not enough.”
The government is in the process of undertaking a more comprehensive survey to identify people in bondage, she added. Gopal and others like him who work in partnership with Jeevika use their childhood memories of suffering and debt bondage to encourage others to find a way out of it.
“The fear of the landlord still exists in our (lower-caste) Dalit communities and people refuse to acknowledge they are in bondage,” said Ramakrishna V, also the son of a bonded labourer.
“It takes a lot of talking before they break down and admit they are paying off a loan they took many, many years ago,” said Ramakrisha, now a lawyer fighting for workers’ rights in court.
Activists say most people trapped in bonded labour are unaware of the fact they might have paid off their initial loan 10 times over. In addition, the 1976 Abolition of Bonded Labour Act cancels any dues that may be pending when a worker is rescued from bondage, they said.
Jayaboraiah, 47, recalled how he was studying in his room when the landlord of his hostel came knocking.
“He said my father had disappeared without repaying the 800 rupees ($12) loan he had taken to start a sericulture (silk production) business. I dropped out of school and spent eight years working in his home and field to pay off that loan,” Jayaboraiah said.
But a glance at a report on bonded labour in a newspaper one morning led him to a government office to ask for help. “Now I know the law and am able to explain to families in debt bondage that they have repaid their dues and should now be demanding minimum wages,” he said.
All three men said their personal experience of growing up in the shadow of debt bondage helps them to start a conversation about the issue in villages where traditionally lower-caste people still find it “almost impossible to leave the clutches of a landlord”.
Gopal said: “We are constantly threatened and so are workers, but we keep going to villages and areas where Dalits live and we lived until recently.
“It takes a lot of probing before anyone admits to having taken a loan and working to repay it. It takes us months to build trust,” he said.
Gopal’s three daughters have documented the lives of their grandfather and uncles who worked as bonded labourers. “I tell them about it because it is the reality from which they have emerged, and it makes them sensitive to the fact that many more still need help,” Gopal said. ($ 1=66.7827 Indian rupees)