All of 155 people were rescued from bonded labour at a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvallur district on March 14. The labourers, including more than 30 children, were freed by district revenue officials. Confined in appalling conditions for four months, they had been subjected to physical violence and were paid far below the minimum wage.

This rescue comes even as the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 is set to be introduced in Parliament. The Union Cabinet approved the bill on February 28. According to the Press Information Bureau, the bill will address the issue of trafficking from the point of view of prevention, rescue and rehabilitation.

Every year, economic and environmental factors force a disproportionately large number of India’s workforce to migrate to different parts of the country. This annual exodus stems from a multitude of factors.

Owing to factors such as erratic rainfall, unnatural spells of dry weather, and falling soil quality, the viability of agriculture to keep lakhs of small and marginal farmers productively employed has diminished. Driven by dire circumstances, and with limited sources of income, farmers are often forced to borrow money at astronomical rates of interest to sow crops, or meet wedding commitments or medical expenses.

Desperate to repay the debts, these farmers succumb to the labour trafficker’s offer of anything as low as ₹500 as advance for unskilled manual contract jobs.

With no work in the villages after reaping the year’s single rainfed crop, the villagers are left with no choice but to make the arduous trip to distant lands and labour in inhuman conditions to make ends meet. The most vulnerable of them end up being trafficked for bonded labour, and are made to endure the worst kind of exploitation, long work hours, physical and even sexual abuse.

The Indian Constitution grants each person the right to free movement across the country. However, the lack of channels of safe migration makes it easy for the unscrupulous to exploit the migrants.

Harvard scholar Siddharth Kara estimates there are approximately 2.05 crore bonded labourers in the world, with South Asia home to about 85 per cent of them. According to his research, India has about 60 per cent (1.07 - 1.27 crore) of the world’s bonded labourers.

Serious questions need to be raised regarding the enforcement mechanism of the existing protective laws. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, encourages the State government and districts to identify, rescue and rehabilitate bonded labourers by means of social security schemes and by providing sustainable livelihoods.

A Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour has been operational since May 1978, with the aim of assisting State governments in rehabilitating bonded labourers. The Central government revamped the scheme in May 17, 2016, to make it the ‘Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers — 2016’. Under this, financial assistance has been increased from ₹20,000 to ₹1 lakh per adult male beneficiary, ₹2 lakh for special category beneficiaries such as women and children, and ₹3 lakh in cases of extreme deprivation or marginalisation such as transgenders, women or children rescued from ostensible sexual exploitation or trafficking, in cases of differently abled persons, or in situations where the district magistrate deems it fit.

However, a large number of rescued bonded labourers are still waiting for the cash rehabilitation assistance of ₹20,000 through the old scheme. A dearth of employment opportunities, crop failure and inability to repay loans compel the freed bonded labourers to return to the vicious cycle they escaped from.

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 seeks to make India a leader among South Asian countries in combating the menace. However, in addition to appeals for allocation of adequate resources for its enforcement, civil society organisations have been pushing for time-bound procedures for the rescues and safeguards for the non-liability of trafficking victims under the new law. There is need also for trained and designated officials with the authority to take up labour trafficking cases. Civil society is also pressing for protocols and funds for the coordination of inter-State cases to strengthen the network of officials, survivors and NGOs.

The critical role of NGOs in combating trafficking and bonded labour also needs to be acknowledged under the new law.

Labour trafficking engages more than a single State’s jurisdiction and it is imperative that cooperation is strengthened by interaction between officials across States, chalking out definitive roles for State governments to ensure speedy rehabilitation. As the Trafficking of Persons bill is set to be tabled in Parliament, the fight against bonded labour and trafficking must be understood as a national priority.

Shantanu Dutta is with India Against Trafficking, a coalition of anti-trafficking movements