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At eight, Devanand was sold by his father to a local landlord in the Indian state of Karnataka for £20. He was enslaved on the landlord’s farm, where he lived in a dung-infested cow shed working 18-hour days. There he spent 13 years - subjected to thrashings and abuse. “I started weeping,” he said. “But it’s a part of life, I had to do it.”
He had fallen victim to bonded labour, a practice whereby people are given high interest loans, in return for which they and their families are forced to work for little or no salary. Often the debt is never paid off and is passed down through generations. Workers are effectively owned by their employers in what is the most prevalent form of modern day slavery. India outlawed the practice in 1976, but is still home to the highest number of bonded labourers of any country, 11.7 million, according to the International Labour Organization.
Devanand escaped his bondage in 2012. A local NGO working on bonded labour, Jeevika, heard of his case and filed for his release with the state government of Karnataka. But it took three years for local authorities to issue him a release certificate. He has been given £10 out of the £225 rehabilitation grant to which he is entitled under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.
Even without full compensation, Devanand’s release is a rare success story. In the last three years alone, Jeevika has personally identified 12,811 bonded labourers in Karnataka. But state authorities have given release certificates to less than 1 percent of the cases Jeevika has brought to them.
Beyond these 12,811 cases, Kiran Prasad, founder of the NGO, estimates that there are up to 400,000 other bonded labourers across his home state. In one case in the year 2000, five quarry labourers were shackled in iron chains for 15 years until they were rescued after trying to escape.
Bonded labourers work interminable days, are often imprisoned in their workplaces from a young age, and suffer unspoken violence and exploitation. They are mostly illiterate, unaware of their rights, and invariably come from India’s traditionally lowest ‘untouchable’ caste, Dalit. “The caste system compartmentalizes our thoughts towards the rest of human beings,” Kiran said. “Being Dalits, they are seen as scum of the earth.”
One example is 21- year-old Beerappa, who works in a silk factory in Sidlaghatta, 65 km from Bengaluru, India’s tech capital. He spends his days with blistered hands dipped in boiling water, unravelling silkworm cocoons destined for India’s £9 billion sari market. He is now in his seventh year of bondage, which began with a £200 loan for his mother’s kidney operation. His meagre salary goes to fund his father’s alcoholism, ensuring that his loan remains outstanding and his exploitation continues.
Government officials often deny the existence of cases such as Beerappa’s. “At present there is no bonded labour here,” said a leading magistrate for the town in which Beerappa works. “All of them have been identified. We do not have such a big problem here.”
Across the country there were just five convictions under the Bonded Labour Act in 2014, according to the most recent government figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
On May 16, the minister responsible for bonded labour in Karnataka announced that the government will formally respond to the outstanding cases raised by Jeevika in the coming months, but the battle looks set to drag on for now.
“Disposing of the cases could mean anything from shredding them to concluding that they are not bonded labourers,” said Nitin R, Jeevika’s lawyer and a former aide to the Chief Justice of India. “Everything is about branding these days. The truth is that there is bonded labour, but the international connotations of slavery mean that it doesn’t suit ‘Brand India’ to have this practice.”
In the absence of strong implementation of anti-bonded labour laws, Kiran says, change will only come from local communities. It is for this reason that all of his employees are former bonded labourers and come from the lowest caste.
“To address this social evil will require us to build up the agency of the victims,” he said. “It is not enough for somebody from outside to do something for them.”
This piece is part of a reporting fellowship from Yale University. Reeva Misra and Josh Jacobs are graduate students at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University. Reeva is the director of Vahani, a scholarship foundation in India, and Josh has written for Haaretz and the Financial Times.