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Spirit of leadership vs bondage: Of empowered chairman of 100-acre social forestry coop

By Gagan Sethi* 

This is about Khoda Sava, a young Dalit belonging to the Vankar sub-caste, who worked as a bonded labourer in a village near Vadgam in Banskantha district of North Gujarat. The year was 1982. Khoda had taken a loan of Rs 7,000 from the village sarpanch, a powerful landlord doing money-lending as his side business. Khoda, who had taken the loan for marriage, was landless. Normally, villagers would mortgage their land if they took loan from the sarpanch. But Khoda had no land. He had no option but to enter into a bondage agreement with the sarpanch in order to repay the loan.
Working in bondage on the sarpanch’s field meant that he would be paid Rs 1,200 per annum, from which his loan amount with interest would be deducted. He was also obliged not to leave the sarpanch’s field and work as daily wager somewhere else. At the same time, Khoda was offered meal once a day, and his wife job as agricultural worker on a “priority basis”.
That year, I was working as secretary of a cooperative society in Vadgam area. The cooperative was formed to reoganise an NGO-supported social forestry project. During our field visit, we met Khoda, whom we found pretty mature, beyond his age. In spite of being a “saathi” – a term used for describing the condition of bondage in the village – we found Khoda pretty positive about his situation. He was an “acceptable” figure among Vankar families, who were otherwise notorious for fighting amongst themselves.
Khoda became the natural choice to as chairperson of the cooperative. We, as social workers, talked over with him and asked him whether he would accept to be the cooperative’s chairman, an honorary post. Khoda asked me a straight: Wouldn’t that be a problem? After all, he was working as a saathi, and the sarpanch would pressure him. Yet, we did not lose hope. We all coaxed him, saying we would support him in case the sarpanch objected.
Finally, Khoda agreed, albeit reluctantly, though he knew this was going to be a reason of conflict. In the very first year, the cooperative, which was receiving a subsidy under the food for work programme, managed to announce a wage equal to Rs 5.50 a day, the minimum payable to under the food for work programme.
In the second year, when the rice season came, there was shortage of labour in the village. The sarpanch, who wished to undertake paddy cultivation, badly needed more workers. He asked Khoda to get him workers from the Vankar community. The sarpanch was sure: Khoda, working under him in bondage, would certainly bring in Vankar men and women to work at a cheaper rate than that prevailed in the fields around.
But things did not work out the way the sarpanch wanted them to. Even Khoda’s wife refused to work on the sarpanch’s field. Instead she joined the cooperative’s social forestry nursery, where she was offered a higher wage. The sarpanch was furious and abused Khoda, saying, “I asked you to get more workers for me, and you have sent your wife to the cooperative! Where are your loyalties?”
I remember Khoda narrating the incident with a glee. His reply to the sarpanch was instant: “As chairman of the cooperative we have to follow certain rules and give minimum wages. My wife decided to join the cooperative as an equal member, and she is free to work wherever she wants. As your saathi till the period I do not repay your loan you had given me, I am bound to work for you. As for others, including my wife, this rule does not apply.”
Khoda did not stop here. He went on: “If you so wish, I can arrange for you a group of tribal workers from Panchmahals district to come and work for you. I will negotiate on your behalf. But you know they work on piece rate, and not on daily wage. They will prove to be more expensive… If you do not compromise and pay a higher wage equal to what is being paid elsewhere, you would miss the sowing season.”
The sarpanch became apprehensive. He wasn’t talking to a person whom he had taken on bondage to repay his loan. He was talking to an empowered chairman of a 100-acre social forestry cooperative.
Even today, bonded labour in various forms continues in Gujarat in the guise of yearly wage agreement with landlords, who give an advance loan for so-called non-productive purposes like health, marriage, or death ceremonies. In spite of the law that forbids the customary bonded labour (jajmani system), it still holds the roost.
Banks offer easy loans to buy vehicles, televisions and other consumer goods. But come a marriage, or a death, or any other ceremony, moneylender still is the most important person to offer loan – and the rate of interest is around 200 per cent!
A year later, Khoda was supported by a non-profit organization to pay back his loan. He proved to be a worthy cooperative leader, winning the first Indira Gandhi Vriksha Mitra Award. Indeed, leadership is about taking stand when it counts.

*Founder of Janvikas and Centre for Social Justice. Slightly abridged/edited version of this was published in DNA

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