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

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".

Gyanvapi case: Use of 'illegal' lawfare to keep the communal pot simmering

By Venkatesh Narayanan, Bobby Ramakant, Manoj Sarang* With a steady drumbeat of bad news for the lives of ordinary citizens --  inflation at a multi-year high , rupee at an all-time low , negative job creation and when all forward indicators as seen by industry leaders point to recessionary clouds on the horizon , what’s a serially-incompetent government to do?  Dust out their time-tested-citizen-distraction playbook. The Gyanvapi-Masjid case is all of this -- as a weapon of mass distraction. This zeitgeist of our times is best captured by a recent opinion piece : "The idea is to keep the pot on a perpetual boil, simmering at the top, whirling feverishly beneath. A restless society forever living precariously on the precipice arouses distrst, uneasiness, fear and discomfort, That is a toxic panoply for manufacturing rage, which can then be effortlessly mobilized at short notice. BJP is creating an eco-system of real-time instant delivery of hate-mongers. That is how we are sudde

Upholding labour rights, Nehruvian scientific temper, Rajni Patel opposed Emergency

By Harsh Thakor*  Rajni Patel, who died 40 years ago, whatever his flaws, had one great quality: his human touch to offer selfless service and ability to galvanise or influence human beings from all walks of life. Few people would ever go out of the way to help someone or serve as selflessly without aim of personal gain. Rajni championed Nehruvian secular ideas and scientific temper. As a master in public relations he revealed utmost humility. As a barrister, he never appeared against the trade unions or workers. A Fabien Socialist he opposed liberal capitalism and radical socialism. Unlike most lawyers, he did not succumb to the lure of amassing wealth. Rajni was born in Sirsa, in Gujarat, on the very day Gandhi set foot on Indian soil, on 9th January, 1915. He gained his baptism through one of Gandhi's speeches calling for the boycott of foreign goods, which was the virtual turning point of his life. Rajni toed Gandhi to organise boycott of foreign goods. Rajni was able to cros

Targeting mosques, churches: 'Roadmap' for 2025, RSS' centenary year?

416 years old Our Lady of Health Church, Sancoale, Goa  By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*  Fascists use manipulative strategies aimed at whipping up sympathy and support from the majority community, to which they normally ‘belong’. They do so in a variety of insidious and subtle ways. In the past few months, they have gone overboard in their efforts to denigrate and demonize minorities in India, particularly Muslims and Christians. They have spewed hate and divisiveness through their venomous speeches; incited people to violence and have effectively used officialdom to further their vested interests. The results are there for all to see: greater polarisation of the majority community in a country which prided itself for its pluralism and diversity. Their meticulously planned agenda is in order to gain absolute power of the country in the 2024 national elections. More so it is also a roadmap towards 2025 when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will complete one hundred years of its existence.

Vadodara violence: Fine Arts Faculty alumni raise fingers at Varsity's political appointee

Hasmukh Vaghela with PM Counterview Desk  In a statement, alumni of the Faculty of Fine Arts (FoFA), Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda, Gujarat, referring to the “violence” by right-wing groups for displaying “objectionable” paintings that “hurt religious sentiments” at the one of India’s top fine arts institute May 5, have taken strong exception to “the assault and rustication” of one of the students, and lack of action taken against those who “violated” the institution and committed the act. Floated as an online petition seeking wider support, the FoFA alumni, in their statement, addressed to the vice chancellor, MSU, said, there should be “thorough” investigation in the whole incident and “immediate action” should be taken against syndicate member Hasmukh Vaghela, MSU, who sparked the assault, and “other co-conspirators” for breaching “university code of conduct and unlawful activities committed in broad daylight”. While the alumni statement doesn't say so, Vaghela

This varsity succumbed to extra-academic mobocracy, 'ignored' Hindutva archives

By Shamsul Islam* Open letter to Sharda University vice-chancellor Sub: Discarding a Question on Linkages of Hindutva with Nazism/Fascism is blatant Academic Dishonesty! Dear Professor Sibaram Khara Saheb, Namaskaar! According to your esteemed University’s portal: “The name of University, 'Sharda' is synonymous to 'Goddess of knowledge and learning-Saraswati'. She is identified with 'veena', an Indian musical instrument and the ‘lotus’, where she resides. The lotus in our logo symbolizes the seat of learning that the University is created for.  "Variety of colours signify the variety of disciplines the university offers and the overlap between petals creating new colours demonstrate the ethos of collaboration between students and teachers of different programme, nationality, creed and colour working towards creating new knowledge…the University's cherished mission to provide education beyond boundaries and to facilitate the students and faculty to achie

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

A former Modi ally, Prashant Kishor wanted to enter Congress 'on contract, as trader'

By Anand Sahay*  The Congress Party and the election campaigns specialist Prashant Kishor, whose company has done strategic communications for a host of political parties across ideology, should both count themselves lucky that they could not reach an agreement for Kishor to join the party. News reports suggest that the Congress rejected Kishor’s terms. This is not wholly unexpected. People join a party because they are attracted to it, and wish to serve it in any capacity that the party may see fit. But that isn’t Kishor at all. He gave the impression of entering into a contract, as a trader might. If news reports are to be believed, he sought freedom to report directly to party chief Sonia Gandhi, and sought untrammeled control over party communications. When such ideas did not find favour, the consultant withdrew. It is clear he has no particular love for the Congress, and its ideas, ideology and politics. In contrast, look at the key personae in G-23. They

Gyanvapi order suggests 'rot' that infests Indian judiciary, to 'facilitate' Hindu right

By Our Representative  The Indian American Muslim Council ( IAMC ) , claiming to the largest advocacy organization of Indian Muslims in the United States with chapters across the nation, strongly condemning the order of an Indian court to seal part of the historic Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has said that the order “puts spotlight on the rot that infests the Indian judiciary, which is actively facilitating the Hindu rightwing’s project of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra.  In a statement, IAMC said, on Monday, a lawyer commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra, who was directed to survey the mosque — after a group of Hindu women filed a petition seeking permission to pray on the premises — submitted before the court that a Shiva Linga (an idol depicting the Hindu deity Shiva) was found in “wazu khana” (ablution tank) of the mosque. It added, the lawyers representing the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which manages the Gyanvapi mosque, rejected the claim saying that the

A Marxian trend that queries undemocratic customs and traditions of capitalism

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  A very well-meaning comrade called me a pluriversal Marxist with a wild smile full of English irony, while chairing my book release function in the Marx Memorial Library, London. I dedicate this piece to her… There is no other philosopher who is more abused and misunderstood like Marx. There is no other philosophy like Marxism which is more demonised on a regular basis. The mindless vilification campaign against Marx and Marxism continues without any form of reason. The propaganda and portrayal of Marxism as a devilish doctrine signify its importance as a philosophy of human emancipation from the very forces who demonise it. Marxism is a philosophy of praxis which helps us to understand the centrality of creative power of labour in producing socially meaningful value. It helps us to analyse the laws governing production, distribution, consumption, exchange, market, profit, pricing and private property in the development of class-based society. As a humanist p