Liberty is the most important aspect of any human’s life and such shall not be curtailed on the whims and fancies of any other individual. However, the system of bonded labour in India has striking features as the curtailment of liberty, force and obligation.
This system has been so deeply rooted in Indian society that even after 74 years of independence, it could not be completely abolished and persists somewhere or the other in minute level. The present paper discusses the concept of bonded labour, its causes and the Indian and International framework to abolish it.
The system of bonded labour is another form of slavery. In India, the bonded labour system is majorly linked to the caste system estimated 80 per cent of bonded labours are Dalits, or likewise indigenous people like Adivasis. The age-old caste system in India is majorly formed based on the caste. There is the proximity between the caste and occupational status of the individuals in India as one of the bases for the division of the caste is occupation.
The system of bonded labour was very prevalent in India during the pre-independence period, hence the makers of the constitution have drafted the Article 23 of the Constitution which prohibits the practice forced labour, further provides any contravention to the said prohibition would be an offence under the law.
Despite the constitutional provision the Parliament has not enacted any law and post-independence, Rajasthan Sayri Abolition Act, 1961 and Kerala Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1975 were enacted by the states of Rajasthan and Kerala and also provided penalties for the violation of the Act and there existed no uniform law.
Until, 1976 where Parliament has enacted The Bonded labour system (Abolition) Act, 1976 with the object to provide for the abolition of bonded labour system to prevent the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections of the people. Also, the judiciary played a major role in the implementation of the Act and also in protecting the rights of such labourers.
II. Concept and Definition of Bonded Labour
Bonded labour is a social system which constitutes mostly the lowest class of agriculture or the other labourers who are being exploited. The basic feature of the bonded labour system is it is the work is done by a labourer for another person because of an obligation or due to some force.
The obligation is majorly any debt by attachment of land, house or any customary obligation. One category of bonded labour starts, when the labourers borrow money or advance by promising their labour for a no particular defined period until the loan is repaid. In most of the cases, the loan includes interest as well. And the employer fixes the wages in such a manner which would hardly sufficient for the labourers to make both ends meet and in turn they would be able to pay back the loan.
In this manner usually, the labourer is bounded by his debt to an employer and wouldn’t be able to come out of his debt.
Another type of obligation is through attachment to the land, where a labourer is given a piece of land to cultivate and the yield is shared with the employer. But the problem occurs because of the ratio of share between the hard-working labourer and the employer where most of the yield is taken by the employer. Thus the income is not sufficient to meet his daily requirements the labourers end up taking a loan from the employer and forced to work for the same employer until the loan is fully paid back.
Further, the worst type of situations arises when any such landlords using their power, forcefully grab away the property of the tribals and other weaker section people and forces them to work for him. This kind usually happens in the agricultural sector, stone quarries, brick kilns, construction sites, forestry, carpet weaving, fishing, bidi making, match box etc.
Definition of Bonded labour
Until the enactment of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976, there is no precise decision for the term ‘bonded labour’. In 1931, the Royal Commission on Labour in India has defined bonded labour as follows – “the labourer borrows money from the landlord under a contract to work until the debt is repaid. The debt tends to increase rather than diminish and the man, and sometimes his family, is bound for life.”
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 has defined bonded labourer to mean “a labourer who incurs, or has, or is presumed to have incurred a bonded debt.”
According to the Act, the bonded labour system is of a forced labour under which as debtor had made an agreement with the creditor to the effect that he would provide his services by himself or any of the members of his family for a specified or unspecified period to the creditor either for without wages or with minimal wages.
III. Constitutional philosophy of Bonded Labour
The system of bonded labour is widespread in India before the Independence of India, where a powerful section of the community exploited the poor, deprived and weaker communities and continue to hold them, hostage, for years together.
During the constitution assembly debates regarding the draft present Article 23 of the Constitution, Mr Biswanath Das has said that “That the practice of the bonded labour does not exist among the major States whose representatives I find today in this House. Sir, in my part of the country, forced labour has been taken advantage of by most of the small Indian States.
They receive grants from the Government of India for the construction of roads and utilise the money for their purposes and by means of forced labour, they construct roads and other civil works. Therefore, Sir, I do not apprehend the trouble which my friend Dr Ambedkar has just now voiced. In case of national emergency, the State must come forward and everybody must compulsorily work for the country, be it war or famine or drought. But I do not
want any lacuna leftover which will allow some of the Indian Princes to use forced labour for their own gains.”
The framers of the constitution took a serious note of it and framed the chapters of Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State policy to protect the interests of the weaker section people.
The provision of Article 14 which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of laws to all the persons residing within the territory of India. Article 21 secures the right to life and personal liberty of the individuals. Article 23 prohibits the traffic in human beings and the beggar and other similar forms of forced labour and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable under the law. Consequently, the system of bonded labour stood prohibited by Article 23 of the Constitution.
The provisions contained in Article 39 (e) and (f), 41 and 42 which are enshrined in the chapter of Directive Principle of State Policy puts an obligation on the State to protect the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children against exploitation. It also compels the state to provide just and human conditions of work including educational facilities to all the people, so that any individual can live with human dignity.
The above-mentioned provisions of the fundamental rights and the directive principles of state policy gave to these subjugated labourers a new hope for a better tomorrow.
The basic philosophy behind all the above-mentioned provisions is promises made by the state to the citizens to secure their social, economic and political rights in all spheres of life.
But, after Constitution came into force the central and state governments were unenthusiastic and did not take any measures to provide social and economic justice to these deprived sections of the population by launching various welfare schemes for their benefit. However, the problem of bonded labour could not receive any special attention until the enactment of the law in 1976.
IV. Major Provisions of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act
The Act has defined the terms ‘bonded labour’ and ‘bonded labourer’ in the definition clause. The tern ‘bonded labour’, any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system and the term ‘bonded labourer’ means a labourer who incurs, or has, is presumed to have, incurred, a bonded debt.
The bonded labour system as defined under the section 2(g) of the Act, is where any person is forced to work under any agreement for any debtor, where he render himself or his family members labour for an specified or unspecified period either without wages or for minimal wages or Giving up his freedom to employment in any other place or giving up his freedom of movement or giving up his right to sell any such property or production as per market value, to the effect that –
- For any consideration of advance provided in advance to such labour or his family members
- In accordance with any social or customary obligation
- Due to any economic consideration received by him or any of his family members
- By reason of his birth in any of the particular caste or community
The chapter – II of the act deals with the abolition of the bonded labour system,
Section 4 of the Act abolishes the bonded labour system, which is existing prior to the act and also forbids that no person can make any advance or compel any person to provide his labour which would come under the preview of the bonded labour act after its commencement.
Section 5 of the Act makes every such agreement custom, tradition, contract or any such instrument, which by its virtue binds any work or services of any person or his family members or dependents, shall be void.
The chapter – III of the act deals with the extinguishments of liability to repay bonded debt
Section 6 of the Act deals with the Liability to repay the bonded debt to stand extinguished –
- It extinguishes the past liability or existing liability of such bonded labour.
- It bars courts from entertaining any suits with respect to recovery of any bonded debt.
- It legislates for restoration and recovery of any such immovable or movable property which was given or takes over forcefully from the bonded labour.
- Such restoration process must be made within 30days of the commencement of the Act.
- Also, enacts for the release of such bonded labour who are in civil prison prior to commencement of this Act.
Section 7 of the Act says that any property vested in a bonded labourer to be freed from mortgage, charge, lien, or any such other encumbrances. Also if there is any delay made in restoring any property, such labourer shall be entitled to mesne profits as may be decided by the civil court of the lowest pecuniary jurisdiction within the jurisdiction of whose such property is situated.
Section 8 of the Act says that such freed bonded labour shall not be evicted from any homestead or any such residential premises which he was occupying immediately before the commencement of this Act. Further, if such eviction has taken place, the Executive Magistrate in charge of the subdivision shall as early as practicable restore the labourer such premises.
Section 9 of the Act restricts the creditor from accepting any payment against any bonded debt, and contravention of this provision shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years and also with fine. Further, any such amount accepts by the créditor must be deposited in the court and such would be refunded to the bonded labour.
The chapter – IV of the act deals with the implementing authorities
Section 10 of the Act authorizes the state government to confer such power and impose such duties for District Magistrate implementation of this Act. Such District Magistrate may specify any officer, subordinate to him to exercise such powers and duties.
Section 11 of the Act imposes a duty on the District Magistrate to make effort as far as practicable, to promote the welfare of the freed bonded labourer by securing and protecting the economic interests of such bonded labourer so that he may not have any occasion or reason to contract any further bonded debt.
Section 12 of the Act enacts that it shall be the duty of the every District Magistrate or such authorized officer, within their local limits to conduct such inquiry and if any person found enforcing bonded labour and take necessary action against him.
The chapter – V of the act deals with the implementing authorities
Section 13 of the Act authorizes State government to establish such Vigilance Committee in each district and such subdivisions as it may think fit.
Section 14 of the Act lays down the functions of each vigilance committee as follows –
- To advise District Magistrate or such authorised person for implementation of this Act
- To provide for the economic and social rehabilitation of the freed bonded.
- To observe the number of offences on which cognizance has been taken under this Act
- To defend or authorize any such person to defend any suit filed against a freed bonded labour or his family member for recovery of any bonded debt.
Section 15 imposes the burden of proof on the creditor, whenever any debt is claimed by a bonded labour or vigilance committee that such debt is not bonded debt.
The chapter – VI of the act deals with the offences and procedure for trail
Section 16 provides for punishment of bonded labour for any person who compels anyone to render any bonded labour, for a period of 3 years imprisonment and a fine up to 2,000 rupees.
Section 17 makes it punishable for any person whoever advances bonded debt, to any person after the commencement of this act, shall be liable for punishment of imprisonment for a period of 3 years and fine up to 2,000 rupees.
Section 18 makes it punishable for whoever by virtue of any custom, tradition, contract, agreement or such other instrument, makes any person or his family member or his dependent to render any service of bonded labour, such shall be punishable for imprisonment for a period of 3 years and fine up to 2,000 rupees. Further, out such fine recovered, payment would be made to such bonded labour at the rate of 5 rupees per each day for a period such bonded labour was extracted from him.
Section 19 if any person as per said provisions of the Act, fails or omits to restore possession of any property to such bonded labourer, shall be punishable for imprisonment for a period of 1 year or with fine of 1,000 rupees or both. Further, out such fine recovered, payment would be made to such bonded labour at the rate of 5 rupees per each day for a period such property was not restored to him.
Section 20 provides punishment for any such abettor whoever abets for committing any such offence mentioned under this act, whether such act was committed or not, shall be liable for punishment same as for the mentioned for such offence.
Section 21 empowers State government to confer such powers to the Executive Magistrates the powers of Judicial Magistrate Class I or Class II, to conduct the trial of the offences mentioned under this Act. Such Executive Magistrate shall be deemed to be Judicial Magistrate for criminal procedure code, 1973. Also, any offence may be summarily tried by a Magistrate.
Section 22 of the Act makes every offence under this Act to be cognizable and bailable.
Section 23 states any such offence mentioned under this Act is committed by any company, every such person responsible for the charge of the company shall be liable to be punished accordingly.
Further, any such committed by consent, connivance or neglect on the part of any such director, manager, secretary or other officers of the company, he shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.
V. Central Governmental Schemes on Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers
After the enactment of the 1976 Act, To assist State governments in their duty to rehabilitee such releases bonded labourers, the Labour Ministry has launched a centrally sponsored scheme in May in 1978. As per this scheme financial assistance is being provided to the released bonded labourers and the budget was shared in the ratio of 50:50 between the Central and State government and in the case of North-Eastern states, the central government would provide 100 assistance if they expressed their inability to share the burden.
The scheme is being periodically revised and subsequently, The Government has revamped the Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers with effect from 17th May 2016.
The salient features of the ‘Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourer, 2016’ are as under:-
- Financial assistance for rehabilitation of rescued bonded labourer at the rate of 1 lakh rupees for an adult beneficiary and Rs. 2 lakh for special category beneficiaries such as children including orphans or those rescued from organized & forced begging rings or other forms of forced child labour, and women and Rs. 3 lakh in cases of bonded or forced labour involving extreme cases of deprivation or marginalization such as trans-genders, or women or children rescued from ostensible sexual exploitation such as brothels, massage parlours, placement agencies etc., or trafficking, or in cases of differently-abled persons, or in situations where the District Magistrate deems fit.
- The Scheme sponsors for financial assistance of Rs. 4.50 lakh for each district of the States for surveying bonded labourers, Rs. 1.00 Lakh for evaluatory studies and Rs. 10 Lakhs per State per annum for awareness generation.
- The release of rehabilitation assistance has been linked with the conviction of the accused. However, immediate assistance up to 20,000/- may be provided to the rescued bonded labour by the District Administration irrespective of the status of conviction proceedings.
VI. International Framework For Protection Of Bonded Labourers And Role Played By The International Labour Organisations
Firstly in the year Forced Labour Convention, 1930 prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labour and exceptions being compulsory military service, normal civic obligations as a consequence of conviction of court or in cases of emergency or communal serviced performed in the interest of the community. Further, it requires forced labour to be a punishable offence and every such ratifying state would enact laws to impose strict penalties.
Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 declares that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade should be prohibited in all their forms
Article 8 of the International Covenant on civil and political rights, 1966 prohibits the slavery and slave trade in all their forms.
Also, the Article 6 of the International Convention on economic, social and cultural rights, 1966, recognizes the right to work in favourable conditions which include the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.
Further, Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1975 which prohibits forced labour as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for expressing critical views against the government.
VII. Role Of Judiciary In Abolition Of Bonded Labour System
The Hon’ble Supreme Court has set a new constitutional standard at a time when the state has neglected its work to protect the human values.
In Sanjit Ray v. State of Rajasthan, the SC restricted the state from extracting labour by paying less than the minimum wages in the name of public utility services, considering such amounts to forced labour and is violative of Article 23 of the constitution. Therefore, labour must be compensated with wages even when they are under law compelled to render service in the larger public interestjdblsbdlSBlSBlSbllksdlkk
In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, the main question was regarding the existence of bonded labôur in the Faridabad stone quarries near the city of Delhi. It was alleged that majôrity of the workers were compelled tô migrate from ôther states, and turned into bonded labourers. The workers were living in sub-human and mīserable condītīons. A violation of various labour laws and the Bonded Labour System (Abolītion) Act 1976 was alleged. The SC recognized the right of bonded labourers to līve with human dīgnity. The Central government īs bound to ensure observance of social welfare and labour laws enacted by the parliament to secure to the workmen a līfe of basīc human dignity in complīance with the Dīrective Principles of State Policy.
In Neerja Choudhary v. State of MP, the main issue in this case related to the effective rehabilitation of the released bonded labourers. The courts said that it is not enough merely to identify and release bonded labourers, but it is equally important that after identification and release, they must be rehabilitated because, without rehabilitation, they would be driven by poverty, helplessness and despair into serfdom once again.
The abolition of bonded labour has been a struggle in India, where many problems are to be tackled. The main reason for the bonded labour was extreme poverty and the predominant caste structure.
The Act when passed has declared the bonded labour, whenever it existed as illegal but there are many problems identified as to lack proper machinery for the implementation of the Act.
The National Human Rights commissions have always pressurized the state governments to conduct surveys and rehabilitate the bonded labourers but the results always remained poor.
Former CJI of India, H.L Dattu, while addressing a National Seminar on Bonded Labour’ hosted by the National Human Right Commission at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library said that bonded labour is the worst violation of human rights and held it to be a crime against humanity.
Making legislation is different from enforcing it and the state along with the other commissions and NGO’s thrive for the implementation of this Act.
 Sarkar Tanika, “Bondage in the Colonial Context, in chains of servitudes”, supra note 14, at 96, 111-12.
 Section 2(f) of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
 Constituent Assembly of India Debates (Proceedings) – Volume III, 1st May 1947.
 1983 AIR 328.
 AIR 1984 S.C. 802.
 AIR 1984 S.C. 1099