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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 !

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