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Reflections on how a north Indian village came to freedom

April 21, 2017

While visiting our partner, NIRDESH, in the north Indian state of Bihar this week, I was amazed by the clarity of the participants in one of the Community Vigilance Committees. Villagers in this region are typically unaware of their rights with respect to debt bondage, but they explained exactly what bonded labour is under India’s laws. They then said bonded labour had been eradicated throughout their hamlet of approximately 70 households.

Sometimes I hesitate to ask people who are still caught in this form of modern slavery what it means to them. We are just visitors from outside and we cannot predict the level of trauma that they are currently experiencing.  But since everyone here is now free, I felt able to ask.

The woman (in the photo above) explained: “Previously it was very difficult to live, but now for the food we need, we feel free from any difficulty.  We never had any time.  Our children were not going to school, and instead were working with us.  Now we can choose the hours we work and we can send them to school.  Earlier we used to just get 4 kg of grain and now we get money.”

Responses from the men went further. One said, “Life was suffocating. We worked under force and pressure. Now we can do what we want.”

Another said, “Earlier we were in a prison.  Now I can go to Punjab and other places for work.”

Getting out of bonded labour 

We were sitting in the open air with 16 men and 18 women of the Community Vigilance Committee (CVC).

We asked the group about how they had managed to get out of bonded labour.  Since 2015, NIRDESH has been working with local residents to set up a Self-Help Group through which they could make small monthly savings, so that when they had an emergency they could get help from each other.  This meant that they were not constantly going back to the same moneylenders who forced them to work in their fields.  They began to seek work elsewhere.

However, if they need a very large loan that is more than the Self-Help Group can provide, they go back to the moneylenders who still charge an extortionate rate of 60% per year. Crucially, the families have changed their negotiating power and now they are not required to work for the moneylender to pay back the loan. They can pay back loans by working wherever they decide to.  Also, many people no longer have such loans. It’s a major shift away from a pattern of control and coercion that has continued here across generations.

One of the men explained that recently when the moneylender came to him and demanded that he go to work in his fields, the worker got together several other people. They collectively explained that it was simply illegal to force them to work against the loan, and if he persisted, they would bring a case against him.

Protecting migrant workers

Some of the men now go to more prosperous states to work for three to six months of the year, whereas before they were not allowed to travel.  Migrating for work entails many risks, especially that the men will fall into conditions of slavery elsewhere. So along with all of our other NGO partners in Bihar, the CVC members in the village are using a migration tracking form to maintain a register of who is going where, for which work, and whether they are keeping in touch with their families.  This helps migrants ensure that they know what they need to know before traveling, and it could help with tracing their whereabouts if families become worried.

NIRDESH’s Legal Associate (right) and participating CVC members.  Photo: G Baumann/Freedom Fund

Having a legal advisor on NIRDESH’s staff has also helped change their negotiating power.  He comes to many of the CVC meetings, and has helped to get national identity cards for 45 families. He is sorting out pensions for widows, and is helping an elderly man whose land was illegally seized by more powerful people in the village.  They showed us the metal box where they keep all the paperwork for India’s entitlement systems, in case residents need to apply.

Rescuing child labourers

Earlier, eight of the village children aged 12 – 16 had been taken to Bangalore and put to work in a bag factory.  When they were rescued in 2015, NIRDESH made sure they all got their release certificates. NIRDESH put the children’s details on Bihar’s new online child tracking system which means they will soon be provided with compensation of Rs. 25,000 ($365), as well as other compensation for bonded labour. One of the boys explained he wants to buy a buffalo for his family and told us what it would cost.  At the same time, some of the village girls have received vocational training.  Five are now working independently, while seven are working under the guidance of the local tailor.

I asked them what made them decide to make all these changes.  One elderly man explained, “When the children came back to the village they seemed in such a very bad state, so we also felt bad and we decided not to send any more.  If we don’t do this now, we’ll never move ahead.” 

Pictured: CVC participants, with NGO partner NIRDESH.  Photo: G Baumann/Freedom Fund

Written by
Ginny Baumann
Senior Program Manager