Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Slavery in Modern India

A few days back I attended a talk by Sidhamma (also spelled sometimes as Siddamma or Siddhamma), an extraordinary social activist working with Irula tribals in Tamil Nadu, India. Growing up in a small village in Karnataka, she suffered a vicious bear attack as a child, resulting in the loss of an eye and permanent disfigurations on her face. However there was a silver lining: moved by Sidhamma's plight following the bear attack, her parents decided to send her to school, unlike her siblings, and she eventually went on to college. Trained as a teacher, she eventually became involved in social activism. Sometime in the early 1990s, Sidhamma’s group was approached by Irula leaders for help in their fight for progress and against exploitation, and she has been involved with the community ever since.

The Irulas are a sizable tribe in Tamil Nadu, with their hereditary occupation being snake and rat catching. Low down in the traditional Indian social hierarchy, they have been oppressed for centuries. Wildlife protection laws introduced in the 70s added to their misery by banning trade in snake skins and limiting the Irula’s access to their traditional forest lands. An interesting side-note: the Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Co-operative Society established with the help of Romulus Whitaker is the main supplier of snake venom to laboratories across India for use in the production of life saving anti-venom serum.

When Sidhamma first started working with the Irulas, they were almost totally illiterate, were not aware of even their basic rights and were being severely exploited by upper-caste landlords. With Sidhamma’s help an organization called Sarpam and another called Bharathi Trust were set up to organize the Irulas, teach them about their rights and fight against exploitation. Much progress has been made over the years.

One of the most notable achievements for the Irula community has been the freeing of Irula bonded laborers from rice mills in the Red Hills area on the outskirts of Chennai – an achievement in which Sidhamma has played an instrumental role. It was shocking for me to hear about the plight of these bonded laborers numbering in the thousands – slavery in the 21st century just a few miles outside Chennai. Here are some pictures of this type of work. Like most bonded laborers in India these people were trapped in a barbaric arrangement of debt-bondage – an age-old practice rooted in India’s traditional social system. A person is forced to provide labor as repayment for a loan – sometimes generations old – but the pay that the laborer gets is so low that there is no possibility of ever repaying the loan and ending the bondage. As former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati stated “Bonded laborers are non-beings, exiles of civilization, living a life worse than that of animals for the animals are at least free to roam about as they like... This system … is totally incompatible with the new egalitarian socio-economic order which we have promised to build.”

Sidhamma narrated to a shocked audience how many Irula bonded laborers spent their entire lives – from birth to death – behind the high walls of the rice mills. Men, women and children were forced to work long and hard, without even basic workplace safety. They were paid a pittance, most of which anyway went to their creditors. Their living quarters lacked even basic amenities and sanitary facilities. A bonded laborer was allowed to make short trips outside the rice mill compound only on condition that he left his entire family inside. Sidhamma narrated the case of a woman who was forced to work right up to her delivery, and then was forced to return to work within three days of childbirth. If a laborer needed medical care, the cost of providing the care was added to that person’s debt, thus driving him further into bondage. Sidhamma and other social activists became involved when some of the bonded laborers escaped from the rice mills and approached the activists with their sad story and with an appeal for help. After finding out more about the issue, Sidhamma and her organization approached the local authorities for help but they were initially dismissive, suggesting that this was not bonded labor and saying that the laborers indeed needed to repay their debts completely if they wanted freedom from their bondage. The most that the local authorities were willing to do was to introduce a scheme whereby the laborers could reduce their debt by Rs.2000 per annum. Not satisfied with this half-hearted response, Sidhamma and the other activists decided to publicize the issue and launched a campaign to free the bonded laborers. This campaign included holding demonstrations and appealing to higher government authorities, human rights bodies, etc. Their efforts eventually bore fruit. The National Commission for Women (NCW) played an especially useful role. With the help of the government machinery, hundreds of Irula bonded laborers were set free, and official promises were made to free thousands more. The news was reported in the national and international news media. Sidhamma herself received a lot of recognition for her role in freeing the Irula bonded laborers, and she was awarded a prestigious Outlook Speak Out Award in October 2005.

What I found most shocking in this story was that the local community (including the local authorities) was probably aware of the existence of the bonded laborers in the rice mills all along. The rice mills – in the outskirts of Chennai – were not hidden away. They were there for all to see. Their high walls appear to be more to prevent workers from escaping, than to hide clandestine activities within. However, until the Irula people developed a new sense of awareness about their own rights, bonded labor was seen by the local community (including perhaps the Irulas themselves) as part of the normal scheme of things.

While Sidhamma has received much recognition for her part in freeing the bonded laborers, I think the groundwork that she and other activists laid over the last ten to fifteen years of working with the Irula community has been the more important part of her work. It is this kind of foundational work that is critical for oppressed people such as the Irula bonded laborers to be able to break free from their lowly and servile positions in traditional Indian society. Along with the foundational work, it is very important to have a viable rehabilitation package for freed bonded laborers. For the freed Irula bonded laborers who have spent their entire lives inside the rice mills, it is not easy to adjust to life on the outside. Sidhamma herself is now heavily involved in rehabilitation activity.

While the total number of bonded laborers in India is not known and there does not seem to be any serious effort being made to find out, estimates that do exist put the total number of bonded laborers in India at 10 to 15 million (yes, 10 – 15 million).

It seems to me that the practice of bonded labor and other similar exploitative practices are part-and-parcel of traditional caste-based Indian society. In many cases all the bonded laborers belonging to a particular “owner” are from the same caste. In my view this kind of traditional caste-based social structure must be completely discarded and must be replaced by modernity. Modern industrial units rooted in a modern economy provide immensely better working conditions and quality of life for their workers. Therefore all encouragement should be given to large-scale industrialization in India. Those who romanticize traditional economic and social structures – and there are many who do – fail to recognize their fundamentally exploitative nature.

I think that the most important thing that can be done to improve the lot of bonded laborers and others at the bottom of the social ladder in India is the provision of education. Not only is education critical for such people to gain awareness of their rights, it is also important to enable them to become part of the modern economy. The second most important thing that can be done is to integrate them as much as possible into the modern economy, by which I mean providing access to free markets and providing access to credit at reasonable (i.e., non-usurious) interest rates through modern banking channels. Free market access is important in order to make sure that fair renumeration is provided for services rendered, leading to higher incomes. And the importance of having access to credit is best described by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank “[credit] is another human right. [Credit allows her] to not only take care of herself but also to contribute in the total capability of mankind. That facility is not available to poor people. I am saying that credit should be accepted as a human right because that's the beginning of all the human rights. Because if you're talking about the right to food, right to shelter, right to education and health, you can't get those rights established until you create your own income strength.” Integration into the modern economy will mean that the poor will not have to depend on the tender mercies of the nearest money-lender/rice-mill-owner in times of need.


Blogger ME said...

Hi nice post about the Irulas. Happened to meet Sidhamma at the ISF and yes the Irulas too. Must say they lived in pathetic conditions.

November 13, 2006 4:24 AM  

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