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Bonded labour a thing of past? Gujarat rural workers are now more aware: Ex-official

By Rajiv Shah 

This is sort of rejoinder to my previous story. I was a little surprised on receiving a phone call from a former government official, who retired in 2015, Bipin Bhatt, whom I have known as one of the more socially conscious senior babus of Gujarat. A non-IAS bureaucrat, I first interacted him during my Gandhinagar days, when I used to cover Gujarat Sachivalaya for the Times of India. At that time he was Gujarat’s rural labour commissioner, a post which he occupied between 2004 and 2007. Thereafter I have been in touch with him.
Bhatt phoned me up objecting to a report I had penned in Counterview (“Debt bondage, forced labour, sexual abuse in Gujarat's Bt cottonseed farms: Dutch study”) based on a study published by a Dutch NGO, Arisa, with the active help of the Ahmedabad-based labour rights group Centre for Labour Research and Action (CLRA), which has carried out considerable work among migrant workers, especially those who are from Gujarat’s eastern tribal belt.
Apparently, Bhatt phoned up realising that I had still not seen his comment on my Counterview report which he had sent to me on Telegram. He was right. I had not seen his objection, which was in the following words, “I have strong reservation against such surveys and reports. I have served as rural labour commissioner from 2004 to 2007. Apart from government duty, I am an activist.”
Especially objecting to the part of the report which said advance offered to wage sharecroppers in North Gujarat leads to their bondage type situation in Bt cottonseed farms, Bhatt commented, “Such surveys do not show the correct picture. The advance system does not provide labourers all the time. They take advance and may not turn up. They always ask money for daily requirements.”
He concluded by stating, “The bonded system existed and has almost vanished now. It had sexual angle, too”, even as seeking the original study from me in order to go into “more details”. I forwarded the report to him.
Be that as it may, talking to me on phone he told me that his experience both as former rural labour commissioner and as a farmer who has a 62 bigha farm (jointly owned by family) between Malpur and Modasa suggests things are “not as simple as what the study appears to make out.”
The farm which he owns, situated in Aravalli district, is regionally in the same area where the Arisa study has been done – Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts of North Gujarat, he told me. “I know the whole region very well, have travelled to many villages. It seems the surveyors failed to cross check with other workers or villagers, and did not investigate enough”, he underlined.
According to him, labourers, including those he has been hiring for his farm, where he has been growing commercially usable trees to be sold after a few years’ duration “because it’s a barren land”, suggests that they do not turn up to work without advance. “Even if they take advance, they would run away in case they get a better offer from someone else. Surely, they cannot be kept in bondage even if they are indebted, as your report seeks to suggest”, Bhatt said.
City dwellers who do such types of surveys do not appear to understand rural realities. They have little idea of how things have changed
He continued, “Not only have the rural workers learned to bargain for higher wages, they wouldn’t work for more than the time for which they are hired, such is the awareness. They calculate every penny. Once eight hours are over, whether you like it not, they will just leave the field after demanding wages for the day. In fact, this is true of domestic workers hired in the rural areas as well. Even women workers refuse to work more than the time for which they are hired.”
Bhatt further said, “City dwellers who do such type of studies do not appear to understand rural realities well. They have little or no idea about how things have changed in villages. Indeed, rural workers, without exception, have become very aware, more than we think they are. I know one city dweller activist, who hasn’t seen a maize field. This person had just seen corn in a city market.”
Notably, the former government official acquired fame after a newly constructed locality was named after him – Bipin Bhatt Nagar – in Bhuj following the devastating January 26, 2001 Kutch earthquake, after which he is said to have done seminal work in rehabilitating those who had to be displaced because of the massive destruction that had taken place.
A local dailies Kutch Mitra and Divya Bhaskar (Bhuj edition) even today remember him, he tells me, forwarding me cuttings. Ironically, soon after the locals named the Bhuj locality after him, Bhatt was summarily transferred. A Gujarat Administrative Service (GAS) cadre, he was never promoted to IAS, though he told me, several of his batchmates were. “They are still working in government after retirement. But I have no regrets.”
So, what does Bhatt do today? He claimed, he works with tens of NGOs. “You can look up my Facebook timeline for more details”, he insisted, which I did. Indeed, I realised that I have long been his Facebook friend, though I admit, I don't see the social media very frequently – one reason I miss  what all he regularly posts about his claimed interactions with NGOs, especially in North Gujarat. Most of his Facebook friends are well-known longtime Gujarat activists.

Comments

Bipin Bhatt said…
You have focused on my views. Highlighted me too. My idea was to emphasize on my work and style. The bonded labour issue, if at all, surfaces anywhere in the state, we should consider it a single case, exception. The NGO role reduces nowadays. But one must comparative the ngo annual reports too. I think it aims at more highlighting the lesser work. One should analyse the expenditure into administrative, transportation, remuneration, printing, stationary etc with percentage. The school of mass communication or journalism can take lead in this direction...
Dankesh Oza said…
I think he may deny the NGO's conclusions but he has talked about behavioural patterns of labour which is known but bonded labour incident do come to be known in interior villages here and there.
This it self is an objectionable piece.. and clearly talks from the feudal space, when we are talking about empowering labour communities why should he have a problem when labourers negotiate their wages and work for the time they are ought to work for, and only a few of them are able to do it not everyone. Firstly there is a problem when landlords pay an advance (Loan) to the labour, puri family kaam karti hai but paise sirf ek ya do ke kaam ke hisab se diya jaata hai the money is deducted from pay.. if the men do not pay up the money the women have to give sexual favors..
Mr. Bhatt and upper caste and class landlord so will not understand the situation of laboureres, why give advance.. minimum wages ke hisab se do..
Sudhir Katiyar said…
We thank Shri Bhatt for responding to the report and taking forward the discussion and debate. One of his major objections seems to be that the report has been prepared by city based NGO who are not fully aware of the ground reality. So we need to establish our credentials. It would have been good if he had done some research on the NGO that has produced the report. Centre for Labour Research and Action has been working for last fifteen years with agriculture workers in Gujarat. During 2006-10, it documented and produced report on child labour in Bt cottonseed farms when more than 100,000 tribal children were being trafficked to cottonseed plots of Gujarat. I am sure Mr Bhatt would be aware of this pheneomenon esp as his own farm is located in same geographical location. Action by state and non state actors after the publication of this report has led to significant reduction in trafficking of tribal children.
About the issue at hand, whether wage share cropping can be classified as bonded labour, we respect his opinion. But we hold on to our analysis. Wage share cropping as practiced in Gujarat is a form of neo bondage. We have done more extensive study of the issue and can share this with him to put forth our view point.
Preeti said…
Lets kindly ask Mr. Bhatt whether he enters into written contract with labourers or labour suppliers even. He very well knows that until June 2021, Gujarat had lowest agri. wages in the country. It is thus imminent that cash starved underpaid labourers demand advance not from a position of power but rather due to distress.Many end up paying interest too. The system of calculating shares is many times adverse for the sharecropper. Accept for some local agri workers employed for very specific agri tasks during sowing or harvesting, who work 8-9hours a day, most bonded bhagyas family, (even children join in many times) work s nearly 12-16 hours through the season tending field crops, looking after cattle, even doing household tasks for the landlord. Sexual harassment is not so uncommon either.
First of all, kudos to you for giving views contrary to your article. Very few journalists do this for fear of losing future credibility.

Regarding facts, I am inclined to believe what one of the comments says: there are pockets of bonded labour in some remote villages. The root cause, I think, is lack of education and ignorance of the existing laws.

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