Skip to main content

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.

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%.

Students, lawyers, professors detained in Delhi for demonstrating in support of farmers

By Our Representative  About 25 protestors, belonging to the civil rights network, Campaign Against State Repression (CASR), a coalition of over 40 organisations, were detained at Jantar Mantar for holding a demonstration in support of the farmers' stir on Friday. Those detained included students, lawyers and professors, including Prof Nandita Narain and Prof N Sachin. 

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.