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Bonded labour? 250 Madhya Pradesh migrants rescued, govt response 'evasive'

Counterview Desk 

Claiming that young Adivasi families are being pushed into bonded labour as the rural economy crisis deepens, Madhya Pradesh (MP) civil rights group Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) has brought to light the case of 250 workers from the State who were being subjected to what it calls "exploitative and violent" conditions in Maharashtra and Karnataka.
In a media communique, JADS regrets, while it facilitated their rescue with active police support, there has not been any legal action against the culprits. "All workers who have come back have demanded that the administration prosecute guilty contractors and factory owners, and ensure that the workers are paid all the wages due to them for three to four months of back-breaking work. The response by the administration is evasive", it adds.

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Farming crisis, indebtedness, unemployment, rampant inflation and denial of education opportunities are combining to uproot young Adivasi families and force them to migrate as far as Karnataka and South Maharashtra to work in conditions amounting to bonded labour.
Over the past two weeks around 250 workers and children have been safely brought back after police complaints of violence and exploitation. While the Barwani police helped in their return, they have, as yet, taken no action against the perpetrators. However social workers in Belagavi have helped one group of workers register cases there.
This large-scale displacement of thousands can be witnessed all across Adivasi districts of western MP. Capitalizing on their desperation for work, illegal ‘contractors’ working for sugar industries in Karnataka and Maharashtra give Adivasi households a loan of around Rs 30,000-40,000 in the lean summer months in exchange for work in the cane fields supplying the sugar factories.
After Dushhera, they are taken from their villages to these fields, where everyone, including pregnant women and excluding only infants, work at harvesting the cane and loading them onto trucks for 13-20 hours a day, from dawn till late night, often till 1 am. The workers are not paid, and when they ask for their hisaab­ – valuation of their work and wages earned, they are simply told to keep working and the contractor will decide when the work is ‘finished’ or the debt is repaid.
Since January 18, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan has helped workers or their relatives file complaints in Pati PS and with the Barwani district administration, regarding the harrowing conditions of workers in Belagavi and Bagalkot districts of Karnataka and Satara, Kolhapur and Pune districts of Maharashtra, and their urgent demand that they be helped to return.
Workers were often threatened and abused when they asked for “hisaab” and said they wanted to return. In Belagavi, when a group of workers asked for "hisaab", three of them were locked up as “hostages” in a factory of Nirani Sugars. It was only after persistent demands were made to Barwani and Belagavi administration, that the workers were released after 6 days of captivity.
The group was summarily evicted from the village to stop them from taking legal action. Workers in Belagavi, Bagalkot, Kolhapur and Satara had their phones snatched by contractors to prevent them from informing anyone of their situation. Similarly, to stop workers in Satara from leaving with police help, the contractors and local farmers tried to stir up a ruckus at the local police station. Finally, by February 12, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, with the help of activists and social organizations in Belagavi and Pune, and involvement of Barwani Police (especially PS Pati), managed to secure the return of over 250 workers.

Bonded labour, exploitation and sexual violence:

Many such workers are taken to harvest and load sugarcane for sugar factories in Maharashtra and Karnataka – by ‘contractors’ employed by sugar factories. Facing near starvation conditions, families incur a debt of Rs. 30,000-40,000 per family and, in return, young couples agree to work in the sugarcane fields from October onwards.
Their work begins at the break of dawn, at about 5-6 am, and continues until dusk at 5-6 pm, harvesting the sugarcane. Thereafter, they are made to load this cane into vehicles, a task that goes on until 10-11 pm in the night, sometimes even up till 1 am at night.
Despite working for ‘two person days’ and up to 20 hours, workers hardly ever earn anything near the statutory minimum wages. They are entirely the mercy of the ‘contactor’ who arbitrarily decides the duration and conditions of their work. In complete violation of the law on interstate migration, these ‘contractors’ are not licensed; they do not register workers, do not maintain or provide workers with proper accounts.
Workers are threatened, abused, even raped. Last month, workers from Jhirnia tehsil, Khargone managed to escape and returned home to report continuous rape of 6 women and girls, in addition to forced bonded labour. It was only after three weeks’ efforts by the workers and activists that an FIR was even registered. No action has been taken on the FIR to this day.

Inaction on blatant legal violations allowing unhindered trafficking and exploitation of Adivasis:

Forcing workers to work for unspecified periods of time, without payment of wages, or wages less than the notified minimum wages in exchange for a debt, is bonded labour according to the Bonded Labour (Abolition) System Act, and a cognizable offence.
Further, forcing an Adivasi to do bonded labour is also an atrocity under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The illegalities do not end there. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 stipulates that the ‘contractor’ must be a licensed one, and that he must ensure that the workers he employs are registered with both state governments, the state from which they belong, as well as the state where they work.
It is also the responsibility of the contractor to ensure that they are provided with a ‘passbook’ to record the details of their work and wages received, that they are paid timely wages, above the notified minimum wages, and, that they are provided adequate facilities of accommodation, water and sanitation. Thus, these illegal contractors are in effect, human traffickers, trafficking Adivasis into bonded labour and servitude – cognizable offences under Section 370 and 374 of the IPC.
The National Human Rights Commission, which has been mandated by the Supreme Court to oversee the implementation of the Bonded Labour System Act, has also issued clear directions to the District Magistrates and state governments for the rescue and rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers.
Further, it also directs officials to investigate other offences under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the POSCO Act, violations of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 and act upon them, accordingly. However, the inaction of State governments only serves to provide sanction to these contractors and employers that continue to violently exploit these workers as bonded labourers.
All workers who have come back have demanded that the administration prosecute guilty contractors and factory owners, and ensure that the workers are paid all the wages due to them for three to four months of back-breaking work. The response by the administration is evasive.
Adivasis are all too familiar with government apathy and in fact, even with brutal violence. In September 2021, two Adivasis were killed as a result of police custodial torture within a week of each other, in the neighbouring districts of Khargone and Khandwa. 5 months later, no action has been taken against the culprits in either case.
On one hand, the ruling BJP tries to gain favour with Adivasis by honouring anti- British tribal heroes like Birsa Munda, Tantia Bhil, and Bheema Nayak in Madhya Pradesh – Rs 23 crore were of Tribal Welfare Department funds (which could have been put to more constructive use) were squandered on the Prime Minister’s Bhopal program on Birsa Jayanti.
On the other hand, the descendants of these heroes continue to face very much the same exploitation as their ancestors under the British. The workers, along with Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, now plan to lead a campaign demanding prosecution of guilty contractors and factory owners, along with payment of their unpaid wages from the district administration and the State government.

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