By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Sept 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - People who risk being enslaved after taking out loans to buy food during the monsoon, when casual work is scarce, will be able to help themselves to grain in 100 villages across northern India from this month.
Tens of thousands across India are duped into working without wages to pay off debts, often incurred buying food, for celebrations or during illness, even though bonded labour was banned in 1976, campaigners say.
The risk rises during the monsoon, when it is harder to find farming or construction work.
"Hunger risk is a big reason for people getting trapped in bondage," said Sunit Singh, founder of charity Pragati Gramodyog Evam Samaj Kalyan Sansthan, which works on bonded labour issues and is helping with the initiative.
"Lack of proper food also leads to illness in these vulnerable families and they again need to borrow money for treatment."
India is home to more slaves than any other country in the world with an estimated 8 million among its 1.3 billion population, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.
A federation of more than 400 self-help groups will set up the grain banks in and around the northern city of Allahabad to check hunger among tribal people who are often trapped in slavery in stone quarries and brick kilns.
Barrels of grain will be open to more than 5,000 homes, allowing families to access food when they need it, and put back the same amount at a later date.
"Everybody is always looking for work," said Roshan Lal, convenor of the federation, Pragati Vahini, largely made up of rescued bonded labourers.
"These few months are the toughest for the families, since there is very little work available due to the rains."
Sickness and hunger stalk homes around this time, said Lal, who was once a bonded labourer, like his father before him.
"Existing government public (food) distribution systems often don't reach them on time, when they need it the most," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"The grain banks will fix that."
Availability of grains under the public distribution system, an anti-poverty welfare scheme run by the Indian government, is often erratic with stocks often being siphoned off by middlemen who sell it at a higher prices, campaigners say.
Often tribal families return empty handed from stores due to non-availability of stocks.
Lal was part of an experiment that was started in 2015 with three grain banks. Spurred by the success of these in reducing illegal loans being taken by families, the project is now being expanded with support from philanthropists and charities.
"We are providing a stop gap arrangement when they are out of work or are awaiting their salary. Once they are paid, they will put back the grains they have borrowed," he said.
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katy Migiro and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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