We all are aware of the rich culture that exists in India. It is a heritage of social norms and moral values, beliefs, and traditions; the list goes on. The thing we shouldn’t be naive about is the flip side of the coin. At the same time, the statement mentioned above is one side. The other side is full of societal lacunas, for instance, caste discrimination, gender inequality, extreme poverty, and so on; brings me to our topic, “bonded labor”, which to date shows its demonic head thereby, causing severe damage to the very fabric of growth of the nation. It is morally and ethically incorrect to subject an individual to something so bold, so degrading, and disrespectful. Despite the efforts taken by the Indian government and various institutions across the globe to try and curb such vicious practice, they haven’t been entirely successful in eradicating it from the very root of itself.
It was indeed said by Pearl S. Buck that,
“None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free.”
Table of Contents
DEFINITION & ORIGIN OF BONDED LABOUR
According to The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976, “bonded labor” means any labor or service rendered under the bonded labor system. Further, Oxford Dictionary Meaning: forced work for an employer for a fixed time without being paid, often as a way of paying a debt.
Bonded labor is deeply embedded in society as India is a hub of a culture that is the outcome of the class relation, the constant rise of poverty, and non-education.
The origin of this obnoxious practice has been a much-debated topic, from the discriminatory caste system to the gender inequality and poverty existing in the social strata, all of which has been said to give birth to the existence of bonded labor. Additionally, India’s colonial background and caste system have made it difficult to delineate the history of laborers’ “unfreedom,” as termed by several authors, and understand legal and actual differentiation between slavery under British rule and debt bondage and child labor today. 
TYPES OF BONDED LABOUR
As the practice of bonded labor is very prevalent in India, it is essential to know that there are various typologies of it, some of which are mentioned as follows –
TRDITIONAL SOCIAL RELTIONS
It includes caste-based discrimination where people of lower castes are made to do menial chores to guarantee livelihood. Despite the measures taken up by the government, social exclusion and shallowness of social cohesion exist in society. The abject condition exists in the country, majorly in the agriculture sector. However, there are several traces present in the non-agrarian industry, such as the Sullong tribe in the north east.
The uneven pace of modernization of agriculture has created new demands for a stable and servile labor force, which, in some cases, is obtained through credit bondage and elements of force, deceit, and compulsion. The migrant laborers trap themselves along with their families in this web of abominable practice.
THE RURAL AND URBAN UNORGANIZED AND INFORMAL SECTOR
The practice of bonded labor is the highest in unorganized and informal sectors, like open mines and quarries in regions like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, etc. There is a continuing inclusion of children and women in industries like silk, cotton handlooms, sericulture, construction, domestic work, etc., also, brick kilns have many such laborers.
RELATION BETWEEN LABOUR AND EMPLOYER
Bonded labor is characterized by coercion and driven by force or tradition. Hence, bonded labor isn’t backed up by an economic contract but might be why the employees gain economic necessities. Once the labor enters into this contract, he ends up being a part of the brutal cycle of debt. Moreover, the employer agrees with the employee bound by force, coercion, tradition, etc. which makes the laborer vulnerable and deprives him of his freedom to enter into a new contract or negotiate with his employee.
LEGISLATION & CONTRIBUTING INSTITUTIONS
CONSTITUTION OF INDIA
Some of the related provisions that can be applicable regarding bonded labor are:
- Preamble guarantees all citizens social, economic, and political justice, freedom of thought and expression, equality of status and opportunity, and fraternity, assuring the individual’s dignity.
- Articles 14, 15 & 16 guarantees equality and equal treatment among all.
- Article 19 (1) (g) gives out the freedom to choose any trade or profession.
- Article 21 talks about the right that an individual has towards his/her life and liberty
- Article 23 talks about the prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labor. Traffic in human beings and the beggar and other similar forms of forced labor are prohibited. Any contravention of this provision shall be an offense punishable under law.
- Articles 23 & 24 are about the right against exploitation.
Other than these provisions, there are other provisions under the Directive Principle of State Policy too.
Section 374 gives out the provision for any unlawful compulsory labor —Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labor against the will of that person shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been given a vital role to supervise the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act’s efficient working and make sure that the directives given out by the supreme court are being followed by the central and the state government. The National Human Rights Commission has been trying to make the states undertake rehabilitation of the bonded laborers through convergent action and help the bonded laborers form groups or cooperatives that can take up economic activity on a sustained and viable basis. According to one of the surveys conducted by the NHRC in 2001, the ministry of labor claimed to recognize 13 states and 172 districts as a hotspot for bonded labor, the practice is present in almost all the states across the country . Moreover, several incidents reported by the NHRC were a complaint filed by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), which stated that eight laborers belonging to the Kol community were kept in bondage by an upper-caste landlord . They were not paid the minimum wages required by law; several were beaten either since they were ill and couldn’t work or because they were quitting. Four of them continued working for him and received 2kg grains per day. The employer was booked under the Bonded Labour Act and the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
In the survey conducted in the year 2000, NHRC concluded that there are still numerous cases in various parts of the country. NHRC has been continually working towards the betterment of tribes and child laborers as well.
THE BONDED LABOUR SYSTEM ABOLITION ACT OF 1976
The main objective of the Act is,
” An Act to provide for the abolition of the bonded labor system to prevent the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections of the people and for matters connected in addition to that or incidental to that.” 
The violation of laborers in any way is to be monitored under this Act, and the respective states have to look into the matter. Sections 16 to 19 are complete in themselves and, if appropriately enforced, are sufficient to handle the problem. The Supreme Court of India, in major cases like- Asiad Workers’ Case] and Bandhua Mukti Morcha Case, has widened the ambit for individuals falling under the category of bonded labor, this measure has proven to be effective. However, there remains massive ambiguity to the Act, with the lack of awareness among the lower strata of society, the scarcity of legal aid, the social and economic vulnerability of the individuals in question, the latter rehabilitation required for the freed individuals (Neeraja Chaudhary vs. State of Madhya Pradesh), etc.
Under the said Act, the implementing authorities are district magistrates and officers appointed by the district magistrate to perform the duties. The punishment specified under this Act to enforce bonded labor is imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and a fine, which may extend to two thousand rupees.
The NGOs working in this regard include:
- Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ)
- Dalit Dasta Virodhi Andolan
- People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights
- Bachpan Bachao Andolan
- Bandhua Mukti Morcha
OTHER INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
The International Organizations working in this regard are as follows:
- Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery
- Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)
- International Labour Organization Conventions (ILO)
- International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- Forced Labor Convention
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC)
The problem at hand is dynamic and can bounce back at any given time. Hence, legislations described above, along with the help of various other institutions, must continuously eradicate this evil practice by removing all the loopholes and making the laws better and the proper implementation of these laws. The cases of bonded labor don’t cease to exist even after a plethora of legislations present. The constant violation of human rights despite the provisions laid down in the constitution is another problem that needs to be dealt with.
The broad linkages between bonded labor systems, production structures, and the development pattern need to be better understood since the roots of bondage are related to factors such as production technologies, on the one hand, and economic vulnerability and structural inequality on the other.
Not only this but also, the hindrances like unemployment after freeing the labor, implementation of minimum wage payment, non-education among the socially and economically weaker classes, upliftment of children and women, protection of tribal communities, benefits and attention towards the agricultural sector, clearer understanding between the employer-employee relations, legal alternatives, legal aids given to these victims, etc., should be taken care.
To end this article, I would like to mention a famous quote by Oscar Arias Sanchez
“The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, towards others as well as ourselves.”
Bonded labour in India, available at https://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/slavery/india.pdf (last visited on September 22, 2020).
Bonded Labour in India: Its Incidence and Pattern, available at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_081967.pdf (last visited on September 21, 2020).
THE BONDED LABOUR SYSTEM (ABOLITION) ACT, 1976.
 PUDR v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 1473.
 Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India and Ors., (1997)10 SCC 549.
 AIR 1984 SC 1099.
BY NAVODITA SINGH | SNDT UNIVERSITY LAW COLLEGE FOR WOMEN