Social customs and economic compulsions have kept the bonded labour system alive and kicking, according to the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment. As many as 13,512 bonded labourers were released and rehabilitated in the last four years (an average of nine daily).

The data presented by the Ministry to the Lok Sabha last month revealed that the inhuman system prevails strong in Uttar Pradesh where 6,707 bonded labourers were released and rehabilitated during this period. Figures for States such as Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka show that the system continues unabated in these States. UP, Bihar and Karnataka are the top three States where bonded labourers were found. In Bihar, 2,491 bonded labourers and 1,681 in Karnataka were released and rehabilitated in four years. Puducherry is the only Union Territory that appears in the list.

“Instances of prevalence of bonded labour system are noticed now and then even after its abolition. The root of the problem lies in the social customs and economic compulsions,” the Minister of State for Labour and Employment told the Lok Sabha. The system has been abolished by law throughout the country with effect from October 25, 1975 under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Ordinance which was replaced by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

Historical context

“Bonded Labour or bandhua mazdoori was historically associated with rural economies where peasants from economically disadvantaged communities were bound to work for the landlords. In the present times, however, bonded labour is found to exist in both rural and urban pockets in unorganised industries such as brick kilns, stone quarries, coal mining, agricultural labour, domestic servitude, circus and sexual slavery,” states the Policy Report on Modern Day Slavery by Ajita Banerjie, published by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy .

The report adds that the action taken by the State to end the labour bondage is ineffective, while the efforts of non-government organisations have been more on release than rehabilitation. The Global Slavery Index estimates that on any given day in 2016, there were nearly 8 million people living in modern slavery in India. In terms of prevalence of modern slavery in India, there were 6.1 victims for every thousand people.