The Government of India, in May this year, modified the Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers by significantly increasing the rehabilitation amount. But will this help? Srujana Bej from Factly takes a look.
In May, the Ministry of Labour and Employment released the operational guidelines for the new Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, 2016. This story outlines the issue of bonded labour, highlights the important features of the 2016 scheme, and compares it with earlier central sector schemes for rehabilitation of bonded labourers to understand if the new scheme will help in making any substantial progress.
A Relic of the Past Thriving in Present Economic Depravity
Bonded labour is an asymmetric relationship between a creditor and a debtor in which the repayment of debt is demanded by labour, and enforced through the violation of human rights of the debtor. Bonded labour is a variant of slavery. Its subjects are forced to work long hours in hazardous conditions, are denied wages, fall victim to physical and sexual abuse, and lack social protection, freedom of employment, and movement.
Bonded labour robs the debtors of dignity and autonomy, keeping them in a vicious cycle of dependence on the creditor. It can continue for several years and even pass on to the next generation, even though a report sponsored by the Planning Commission found (from a survey of rehabilitated bonded labourers) that nearly half of the loans were for less than Rs. 5,000 and that most loans were for less than Rs. 10,000.
Bonded labour preys on the chronically poor in India who are disadvantaged and vulnerable due to the lack of livelihood opportunities, assets, illiteracy, caste inequalities, and a feudal structure. Most bonded labourers are landless and belong to the Dalit or Adivasi communities. They lack economic power and access to social goods and opportunities. Unable to sustain themselves, they are forced into taking debts and enter into unfair agreements.
In recent years, agents have been luring the penniless with promises of fair employment, only to traffick them to a different part of the country and enslave them as bonded labourers. Usually, the male head of the deprived household is trapped into bondage and resultantly, the women and children are also enslaved.
A plethora of laws and international conventions prohibit bonded labour. They include the Forced Labour Convention of 1930, Abolition of Forced Labour Convention of 1957, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 23 of the Indian Constitution. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 abolishes the system, frees all bonded labourers, and writes-off their debts. The Act also requires the offence of bonded labour to be registered and tried summarily, prescribing 3 years of imprisonment or a Rs. 20,000 fine for offenders.
Yet, the system operates insidiously across India in agriculture, mining, quarries, construction, brick kilns, silk and cotton production, bidi making, the informal sector, etc. Escaping from bonded labour is next to impossible. Therefore, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act required State Governments to establish Vigilance Committees to identify, release, and rehabilitate bonded labourers. In 1978, the Central Government established a scheme to provide assistance in rehabilitating bonded labourers. This scheme has been revised in 1986, 1995, 1999, and 2000. The latest revision is the 2016 scheme.
Entitlements under the 2016 Scheme
The 2016 scheme is noteworthy as it recognises the differential needs of marginalised groups trapped in bonded labour. It provides cash assistance of Rs. 1 lakh for male bonded labourers, Rs. 2 lakh for female and child bonded labourers and children rescued from forced labour or organised or forced begging, and Rs. 3 lakh for differently-abled, physically challenged, trafficked, commercially sexually exploited, transgender, and other severely vulnerable bonded labourers.
The male rehabilitated bonded labourer provided with Rs. 1,00,000 can opt to deposit the money in an annuity scheme, or directly receive the sum. The district administration will assess his cash requirement and put the money in an annuity scheme with his consent.
For the females and children receiving Rs. 2,00,000 cash assistance, at least Rs. 1,25,000 will be deposited in an annuity scheme, and the remaining amount will be transferred to their bank accounts through electronic clearing service.
Rehabilitated bonded labourers who are extremely vulnerable and thereby receive Rs. 3 lakh cash assistance will similarly have at least Rs. 2 lakh deposited in an annuity scheme, and the balance will be transferred to their bank account through electronic clearing service.
Non-cash assistance provided to all rehabilitated bonded labourers must include allotment of house-site and agricultural land; land development; provision of low-cost dwelling units; animal husbandry, dairy, poultry, piggery, etc.; wage employment, enforcement of minimum wages, etc.; collection and processing of minor forest products; supply of essential commodities under targeted public distribution system; and, education for children.
Adult male bonded labourers must be compulsorily given employable skill training. Children, female, and disabled bonded labourers must be provided with proper education, counselling, short-stay homes until Class XII, and skill development. Financial and other assistance for marriage must be given to women and disabled bonded labourers. Disabled bonded labourers are also entitled to the special care enlisted in the national policy for the disabled.
The Scheme mandates that a Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Fund be created by the State Government in each district to provide immediate help to release bonded labourers. This Fund must have a minimum permanent corpus of Rs. 10 lakh. The District Magistrate (DM) must provide an advance of at least Rs. 5,000 to released bonded labourers from this fund as immediate relief. If the DM finds any bonded labourer in need of greater assistance, he/she can provide the maximum entitlement prescribed to the category that the person belongs to under the scheme.
How the Funds Reach the Rehabilitated Bonded Labourer
Under the 2016 scheme, the authorities will release funds after proving bonded labour in court and convicting the creditor. The District Magistrate can make proposals for financial assistance only upon finding prima facie proof of bondage.
The District Magistrate must submit a claims proposal to the District National Child Labour Project Society, specifying the details of the State Government’s rehabilitation assistance, a category-wise break-up of bonded labourers who need rehabilitation, a release certificate for every bonded labourer, and the penalty or punishment of the creditors.
Later, the District NCLP Society scrutinises this proposal and then submits it to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. The Ministry of Finance vets the release of funds. Then the Ministry of Labour and Employment sends the funds to the District NCLP Society.
According to the scheme, the District NCLP Society must release the funds – along with the interest – to the district administration and other implementing agencies. However, in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministry of Labour and Employment stated that the District NCLP Society would transfer the benefits to the accounts of the rehabilitated bonded labourers through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). Moreover, the official DBT website lists the Rehabilitation Scheme as DBT-onboarded.
Comparison with Earlier Schemes
The previous 1999 scheme provided a meagre Rs. 20,000 cash assistance to rehabilitated bonded labourers, irrespective of their identities and resultant disadvantages and vulnerabilities. The Central and State Governments equally contributed to providing financial assistance (50-50 basis).
Under the 2016 scheme, the Centre disburses the full financial assistance. It has substantially increased the cash assistance provided, and enhanced assistance for disadvantaged groups. It has also increased funds for survey identification of bonded labourers in each district from Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 4.5 lakh.
Curiously, the non-cash assistance of protection of civil rights of rehabilitated bonded labourers finds no place in the scheme, despite appearing in the 2016 draft scheme and 1999 scheme. Moreover, the non-cash assistance provided falls short of the robust assistance proposed by the National Human Rights Commission which additionally provided for identification of the delivery system of inputs – credit facilities, seeds, draught animals, fertilizers; minimum veterinary cover from the existing extension of veterinary services for animal husbandry; supply of raw materials, implements, working capital, work shed, etc.; and, linkage with markets through cooperative or other State-aided institutions to eliminate exploitation by private middlemen.
Towards an Unchained Country?
The Ministry of Labour and Employment reports that it has released around Rs. 162 crores for providing rehabilitation assistance throughout the country from 1978-2014. It noted that the provision of financial assistance was the norm. The States have not put forward any adequate proposals for rehabilitation assistance. The scheme has rehabilitated only 2,28,429 bonded labourers until March, 2016. The government hopes to release and rehabilitate an estimated 1.84 crore bonded labourers by 2024. This is a wildly optimistic goal for the status quo.
Identification, the very first step of rehabilitation, is callous. Observers widely report the District- and Block-Level Bonded Labour Vigilance Committees responsible for identification and release of bonded labourers to be negligent and casual in performing their duties. The International Labour Organisation has noted the absence of Vigilance Committees in all districts. There are instances of the administration reporting zero or low prevalence of bonded labourers, despite reports to the contrary by journalists and non-governmental organisations.
Governments set no targets for identification, and conduct no regular surveys to identify bonded labourers. This is despite the Supreme Court’s order in PUCL v State of Tamil Nadu directing periodic surveys every three years in all States, and ordering the submission of survey reports to the NHRC. Governments conduct surveys limited to a few districts. Lower ranked officials who lack adequate training and sensitivity conduct them. Labourers often accuse surveys of under-reporting the actual magnitude of bonded labour.
It is also common for the administration to drop cases after the identification of bonded labourers, or encourage settlements and compromises between the creditors and bonded labourers. This lack of implementation in identifying bonded labour gives impunity to the creditors, jeopardises all measures, and has resulted in a wide gap between policy and reality.
The Central Scheme absurdly mandates giving the funds only upon conviction. This is problematic because, often, officials register very few cases against offenders. Even among the few registered cases, conviction rates are low, with cases dropping or staying pending in courts due to the creditors’ political and economic power. Years may lapse between release and conviction, delaying the rehabilitation assistance. This time gap could very likely result in many released bonded labourers falling into bonded labour again due to the lack of adequate resources for daily sustenance.
In fact, organisations criticised the time gap between release and rehabilitation under the earlier scheme (anywhere between a month to a year or more) for creating space for released bonded labourers to fall into the system again. With financial assistance dependent on conviction, this time gap has only increased and the disbursal of assistance has become delayed and uncertain.