Bonded Labour


I. Introduction

Bonded labour is widely prevalent in many regions in India. The main feature of the system is that the debtor pledges his person or that a member of his family for a loan and is released on the repayment of the debt.

Bonded labour is referred to by different names in different regions. The Elayaperumal Committee mentions the following:

  • Gothi in Orissa;
  • Machindari in Madya Pradesh;
  • Sagri in Rajasthan;
  • Vet Begar and Salbandi in Maharastha;
  • Jana, Manihi or Ijhari in Jammu and Kashmir;
  • Jeetha in Mysore;
  • Vetti in Tamil Nadu.

In the beginning of the twentieth century the system combined the elements of exploitation, patronage and protection at least in some regions. But with increasing trend towards the money-economy and changes in the types of use to which agricultural land is put, the element of patronage disappeared and that of exploitation persisted.II. Legal Context

A. International Human Rights Conventions

The practice of bonded labour violates the following International Human Rights Conventions whereas India is a party to all of them and such is legally bound to comply with their terms. They are:

  • Convention on the Supression of Slave Trade and Slavery, 1926;
  • Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery Trade, 1956;
  • Forced Labour Convention, 1930;
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966;
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC), 1966;
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989.

B. Indian Constitution

Some related provision regarding to bonded labour, namely:

  • Preamble: The Constitution of India guarantees all citizen social, economic and political justice, freedom of thought and expression, equality of status and opportunity and fraternity assuring dignity of the individual;
  • Article 14, 15 and 16: These articles guarantee equality and equal treatment;
  • Article 19(1) (g): The article guarantees freedom of trade and profession;
  • Article 21: The article guarantees right to life and liberty;
  • Article 23: The article prohibits the traffic in human beings, beggar and other similar forms of forced labour;
  • Article 24: The article prohibits the employment of children whether as bonded labour or otherwise. Together, Article 23 and Article 24 are place under the heading “Right against Exploitation”, one of India’s constitutionally proclaimed fundamental rights.
  • Directive Principles: Moreover, the Directive Principles directs the State to strive to secure, inter alia: (a) Just and human conditions of work (Article 42); (b) Educational and economic interest of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe and other weaker section of the society (Article 46).

Based on those provisions, the system of bonded labour is thus totally incompatible with the aim of an egalitarian socio-economic order under the Constitution of India. The system is also an infringement of the basic human rights and destruction of the dignity of human labout.

C. National Law

In order to give effect to the constitutional prohibition of bonded labour as specified under Article 23 of Indian Constitution, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed in 1976.

The Act was intended to free all bonded labourers, cancel their debts, establish rehabilitative measures and punish offender through imprisonment and fines. Implementation of the Act is the responsibility of the State Government.

Before going into the material parts and the implementation of the Act of 1976, let us observe a few developments in this area prior to the posing of the Act of 1976.

III. Legislative History

Prior to 1976, all efforts to tackle the issue of bonded labour were made at the regional level only. Before the Independence, there were two legislations, namely:

  • The Bihar and Orissa Kamiauti Agreement Act, 1920;
  • The Madhras Debt Bondage Abolition Regulation Act, 1940.

In the post independence period two legislation which had dealt with the abolition of bonded labour deserves mention are:

  • The Orissa Debt Bondage Abolition Regulation, 1948;
  • The Rajasthan Sagri System Abolition Act, 1961.

In all, according to the Report of the Commission for SCs and STs 1964-11965, the net results of these enactments are failure. And in 1975, yet another attempt was made to abolish the system through India under the twenty-point programme.

Initially, the Bonded Labour System Ordinance was promulgated in 1975 and later this was enacted by the Parliament. Thus came into being the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976.

IV. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976

A. Silent Features

The open objectives of the Act are Identification, Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers. Let us analyse some of the silent features of the Act:

Firstly, it is about the awareness of the need for machinery relating to its implementation. Secondly, the Act envisage the Constitution of Vigillance Communities at the district and sub-divisioned level, to advise the District Magistrate and to ensure the implementation of the provision of the Act.

Thirdly, Section 16 to 19 of the Act deals with the Penal Sanctions which are, if enforced properly, sufficient to have the requiste effect.

B. Implementation

The real problem lies in the implementation aspects. The failure in the implementation of the Act may arise because of a variety of factors chide among them, namely:

  • Lack of Awareness: The need to create awareness of socio-economic legislation or to publicize it is hardly realized.
  • Lack of Actual Prosecution of the Offenders: As also seen from past experience, there is hardly any enforcement of the penal sanctions provisions.
  • Lack of Administrative and Political Will: Not infrequently, the administrators who implement the programmes are drawn from the dominant castes whose interests are adversely affected by the legislation.
  • Lack of Facilities for Legal Aid and Advice: Often, illiteracy, lack of communication, remoteness from urban centers and poverty inhibits the weaker section from taking advantage of the legal process available to them.
  • Social and Economic Dependence: The law should take account of the social and economic background of the issue.
  • Lack of Measures to Make Concerned Official Countable for Their in Action or Misdeeds: In Neeraya Chaudhary v. State of M.P. (1982), most of the released bonded labourer had not been rehabilitated even after six months of their release.

C. Obstacles

The problem of Bonded Labour System is not a problem in or by itself. It is a part of the larger issue of welfare of the nation as a whole. Besides the several failures of implementation of the Act, the Report from Human Right Watch Asia (1996) finds that there are also some obstacles to enforce the Act, namely:

  • Apathy;
  • Caste and Class Bias;
  • Obstruction;
  • Corruption;
  • Lack of Accountability;
  • Lack of Adequate Enforcement Staff.

V. Suggestions

Besides the measures for improvement mentioned already in the foregone discussion, the Government of India should demonstrate its commitment to the eradication of bonded labour by implementing some of the following recommendations at the earliest possible.

  • The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act should direct Vigillance Committees and District Collectors to initiate serving and credit programme at the community level.
  • In addition to genuine government action, it is essential that non-governmental organization be encouraged by the Governance to collaborate in this effort.
  • A nation-wide public awareness campaign should be launched regarding the legal prohibition of bonded labour.
  • The scheme for rehabilitation programmes should be integrated with existing IRDP and NREP (35th Session of the Labour Ministers Conference held in 11 May 1985).
  • The Court should also abandon the conventional approach and come to the rescue of the bonded labourers, particulary in the technical rules of evidence and degree of burden of proof.

VI. Conclusion

Bonded labour must be attacked from many fronts. Enforcement of the law is essential, but it is not enough. The bonded labour must have someplace else to go. The elimination of current debt bondage and the prevention of new or renewed bondage therefore, require a combination of concerted government action and extensive community involvement.

Bonded labour is a vast, pernicious, and longstanding social evil and the tenacity of the Bonded Labour System must be attacked with similar tenacity. Anything less than total commitment is certain to fail.


Main References:

  • Bandhua Mukhti, Social Action and the Supreme Court by Parmanand Singh.
  • Bonded Labour by B. Sivaramayya.
  • Bonded Labour in India by Parmanand Singh and K. Pande.
  • Report of Human Right Watch Asia (1996).
  • Other related articles.


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