Skip to main content

Debt bondage, forced labour, sexual abuse in Gujarat's Bt cottonseed farms: Dutch study

By Rajiv Shah 

A just-released study, sponsored by a Netherlands-based non-profit, Arisa, “Seeds of Oppression Wage sharecropping in Bt cottonseed production in Gujarat, India”, has said that a new form of bondage, or forced labour, exists in North India’s Bt cottonseed farms, in which bhagiyas, or wage sharecroppers, are employed against advances and are then often required to work for years together “without regular payment of wages.”
The bhagiya bondage, according to the study, has lately replaced “saathi system, a form of bondage where the worker is bound to work for the same family for years against meagre returns either received in kind or cash.”
Based on field work by the Ahmedabad-based labour rights group, Centre for Labour Research and Action (CRLA), the study says, those who suffer from bondage are “members of tribal and historically disadvantaged communities” (Dalits and Other Backward Classes) who migrate to non-tribal areas and work “on landholdings owned by upper caste privileged groups to work as long-term agricultural labourers.”
The results of a survey among 14 bhagiya workers and their families, of which five are studied in-depth by documenting their narrative through conversations with bhagiya workers working in cottonseed plots in Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts, suggest that 9 out of the 14 surveyed families ended up “with a debt as opposed to an income at the end of a season.”
“For five families this debt is more than Rs 30,000, which is around 100 days of work for an unskilled agricultural labourer”, the study says, regretting, this was subsequent to the bhagiyas agreeing to work – without any written contract – for up to one-seventh of the yield of the cottonseeds.
Discussion with one of the bhagiyas, Ramesh, who had migrated to a farm owned by a Patel in Sabarkantha district from Rajasthan, showed that he “had some ancestral land, but since this land was uncultivable, he was forced to migrate and work for wages to ensure a basic livelihood.”
Stating that this was true of nearly all bhagiyas, the study says, agreeing to work as bhagiya with an advance payment of Rs 15,000, Ramesh and his wife migrated to Idar (Sabarkantha) for this work on 8 acres of the landowner’s farm wage sharecropping for a year – with one-fifth of the yield as the bhagiya’s share.
The study says, “When he was asked about the settlement of the accounts in general and his share for Bt cottonseed in particular, Ramesh stated that he received no returns for the first crop.” In fact, he was told that he had “borrowed” additional sums throughout the year for his daily expenses and medical contingencies – Rs 20,000 for groceries, Rs 24,000 paid against the employment of additional labour, Rs 6,000 as travelling fare and Rs 800 for medicines.
“At the time of clearing the accounts, the landowner informed Ramesh that he owed him a sum of Rs 65,800. When the landowner adjusted this amount against the share of the harvest of cottonseed accrued to Ramesh, he informed him that there was nothing left for him to take back home. In fact, he has a debt of over Rs 30,000”, the study says.
In another instance, the study says, Makhiya worked as a bhagiya at a landholding near his village, owned by a former government employee. “About seven years ago, he had borrowed a sum of Rs 20,000 from a landowner. To repay the debt, Makhiya started working as a wage sharecropper for this khedut (farmer). He has worked for this landowner since then, and still, Makhiya reports that he has not been able to repay the debt.”
“Instead”, the study says, “Makhiya adds, the landowner claims that the family owes him Rs 32,000 from the last term of bhag-kheti, due to which three members of the family have worked continuously to repay the debt.”
Published by Arisa, which is an active member of networks such as Stop Child Labour coalition, Clean Clothes Campaign, International Dalit Solidarity Network, and Dutch CSR Platform, the study has been prepared for CLRA by Prarthana Dodia and Anushka Rose, based on the work of the research team consisting of Prof Ernesto Noronha, Madan Vaishnav, Deepak Dabi, Narayan Gamor and Sendhabhai Parmar.
Of the 14 surveyed, apart from Suresh, who is a graduate and yet works as a bhagiya, none kept “any accounts themselves and were found to be entirely dependent on the calculations and information shared by the landowner”, the study regrets.
The study quotes a third bhagiya, Brahmaji, as stating, “A bhagiya’s life and the cultivation rely solely on the (bhagiya’s) fate and entirely on nature’s forces. There are times when we get returns and there are times when we don’t. We know that there is no one who would listen or pay heed to what we have to say. All we know is to work hard each day, every day, so that we can sustain ourselves.”
It is not just debt bondage from which the bhagiyas suffer. The study says, “During informal conversations with the respondents, the workers study how bhagiyas are often subjected to caste-based slurs, and verbal and psychological abuse by the landowner on a daily basis.”
Not only imposed upon them are “various kinds of excesses varying from long hours of work, additional chores at the landowner’s house, denying weekly allowances and weekly holidays, to not allowing the workers to return to their homes during the festive seasons”, there have been “incidence of sexual abuse and harassment of women bhagiya workers at the hands of the landowners.”
In fact, according to the study, “Given that the family of the bhagiya lives isolated in the fields, away from other bhagiyas and the village, the women are exposed to a constant threat of sexual abuse and harassment… Cases of assault and rape of women of the bhagiya households by the landowners is a well-known fact among the bhagiyas.”
However, they were unwilling to report such an incident or share their experience in detail “for fear of being ostracised by their own community.”
The study believes, “If one attempts to view the Indian laws pertaining to the agriculture workers, one finds that such workers do not have a dedicated legal framework that would define legal provisions and entitlements of the tribal and marginalised migrant agricultural workers.”
Of course, “There are parts of various laws that are relevant to … the case of Makhiya demonstrates conditions of debt bondage, withholding of wages, restriction of movement and isolation. When viewed against the Indian Legal framework, one witnesses an abject violation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, where the worker is bonded and performs forced labour for the landowner against an advance that was taken seven years ago.”
“Although the situation of the families amounts to various violations of the applicable laws, no complaints are being filed and no cases are brought to court. The legal system does not prevent this practice from occurring”, the study states.
It quotes Indian Labour Organisation (ILO) defining “forced labour” to include “abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, withholding of wage, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime.”

Comments

Natubhai Parmar said…
Truely a sensational survey !

TRENDING

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site satyagrahis.in. The satyagraha.in article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the satyagraha.in article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Don't agree on domestic subsidies, ensure food security at WTO meet: Farmer leaders

Counterview Desk  The Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements (ICCFM), a top network of farmers’ organizations in India, in a letter to Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce and Industry, has asked him to “safeguard food security and sovereignty, even as ensuring peasants' rights" at the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO MC 13), to take place from 26 to 29 February 2024 in Abu Dhabi.

Sharp 61-85% fall in Tech startup funding in India's top 'business-friendly' States

By Rajiv Shah Funding in Tech startups in top business-friendly Indian states has witnessed a major fall, a data intelligence platform for private market research has said in a series of reports it has released this month. Analysing Tech startup data of Telangana, Maharashtra, Delhi NCR, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, Tracxn Technologies Ltd , the Bengaluru-based research firm, finds that except for Kerala, funding witnessed a fall of anywhere between 61% and 85%.

Maize, bajra, jute, banana cultivation banned off West Bengal border: Plea to NHRC

Counterview Desk  West Bengal-based human rights defender Kirity Roy, who is secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Manch, and is national convenor of the Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity, in a representation to the chairman, National Human Rights Commission, second within few days, has bought to light one more case of trespassing and destruction of a fertile banana plantation by BSF personnel along the Indo-Bangladesh border, stating, despite a written complaint to the police has taken "no initiative".

India second best place to invest, next to UAE, yet there is 'lacks support' for IT services

By Sreevas Sahasranamam, Aileen Ionescu-Somers*  The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the best place in the world to start a new business, according to the latest annual Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) survey. The Arab nation is number one for the third year in a row thanks to a big push by the government into cutting-edge technology in its efforts to diversify away from oil.

Solar energy funding dips 9% in 2023; 2024 'kicks off' with US$1 billion investment

By Lakshmitha Raj*  Solar energy tech companies have already secured slightly over US$1 billion in funding in 2024 (till Feb 7, 2024) after total funding into Solar Energy companies in India fell 9% to US$1.55B in 2023 from US$1.7B in 2022. A total of 39 $100M+ rounds have been closed till date, with Delhi leading the city-wise funding, followed by Gurugram and Mumbai.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Mahanadi delta: Aggressive construction in flood plains, reduced fish stock, pollution

By Sudhansu R Das  Frequent natural calamities, unemployment, low farmers’ income, increase in crime rate and lack of quality human resources to strike a balance between growth and environment etc. continue to haunt the state. The state should delve into the root causes of poverty, unemployment and natural calamities.

Narmada Valley's fossil evidence: Ground for 'nationalists' to argue primates' India roots?

By Saurav Sarkar*  In December 1982, a geologist digging in India’s Central Narmada Valley found something he did not expect. Arun Sonakia, who at the time worked for the Geological Survey of India, unearthed a hominid fossil skullcap from the Pleistocene era. The discovery sent shockwaves through the field of paleoanthropology and put South Asia on the map of human prehistory. Some experts concluded that the skull likely belonged to a member of a predecessor species of ours, Homo heidelbergensis , or perhaps was a hybrid of homo species, while Sonakia himself suggested “ an affinity… to Homo erectus .”