Rajasthan: The Slavery of Modernity

Bonded labour stalks the feudal interiors of the desert state

Akash Bisht and Sadiq Naqvi  Baran (Rajasthan) 

Speeding across the highway of Kishanganj tehsil of Baran district in Rajasthan, it is easy to spot men and women working by the roadside in small groups. Several such groups are scattered across the landscape, engaged in manual labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarentee Sceheme (MGNREGS). Few kilometres from Sunda village, Babu sits with one such group ,waiting for the assistant district magistrate to inspect the worksite. Living in one of the most backward districts of India, Babu has seen abysmal poverty, starvation deaths and feudal exploitation ever since he was born.

“I was a hali (bonded labourer) for 30 years. Only after a movement to free bonded labourers started, I revolted against Sardar Kulwant Singh who had kept me bonded for 12 years,” he says.

Babu explains that, in the hali system, a labourer gets into an annual contract with the landlord wherein he will be given some money as advance. Kishanganj and Shahbad are the only tehsils in the district that has a high concentration of Sahriyas. Listed as one of the most primitive tribes of India, poverty-stricken and malnourished Sahariyas are found in Baran, and in Sheopur and Shivpuri districts of bordering Madhya Pradesh. The Sahariya region has been infamous for relentless starvation deaths and labour exploitation.

Worse, the land that was allotted to Babu by the state government was usurped by an influential landlord, Praveen Sardar, who owns 1,000 bighas near Sunda village. The landlord encroached on 650 bighas that belonged to 135 Sahariya families, including Babu.

On July 4, 2012, Babu and other Sahariya families participated in a mass public hearing with district officials and lodged a formal complaint after their previous complaints had fallen on deaf ears. “We informed the officials about our land that has been confiscated by Praveen Sardar. After hearing our case, the officials, on July 13, 2012, released the 650 bighas of land to 135 families,” says Babu. He adds that, the same evening, they went to Praveen Sardar and told him that he should not resist the handover or else he will face the ire of 135 families. Babu proudly narrates that he and other Sahariyas are now tilling their own land and expect good returns. “I can earn close to Rs 50,000 this year if everything goes well,” he says, with a grin.

He also reveals that there are 980 other families who are yet to get their land. Several NGOs are trying to put pressure on the government to free their land. A majority of those who were awarded land were halis who recently broke free from their tyrant employers.        

Babu says that most of the labourers present at the MGNREGS site have worked as bonded labourers for landlords of dominant communities like Sikhs, Gujjars and Rajputs. After a protracted movement to free them from bondage started in 2010, Sahariyas have been ‘freed’ from this feudal oppression. “I became bonded labour after my father died. He had taken a loan from Sardar Amrao Singh, so I had to repay it by working on his land. Since childhood, I have only witnessed misery,” says Babu.

He narrates how he was beaten up brutally by the landlords several times. There was an entrenched nexus between top officials and landlords, hence they could not even protest. “We felt threatened and could never raise our voice. If we reported to the police, they would immediately inform the landlords who would then come and beat the hell out of us,” he says. These landlords would force the labourers to get their wives to do household chores and collect cowdung. “Our women were hardly paid and even if they were, they would get Rs 20 or 30 for a day’s work,” says Babu.

Kishan Lal of Sunda has a similar story to tell. “When I was 17, my father, who worked as a bonded labourer with a Sardar, died. The Sardar came to our house and said that my father owed him Rs 2,25,000 and I too must work on his land to repay the debt.” Kishan worked for Sardar for 24 years as a bonded labourer. “He would pay me Rs 4,000 for an entire year’s hard labour and that too in instalments. He would sometimes pay Rs 10 or Rs 20 as daily wages. At the end of the year, he would declare that I still owed him a huge amount of money since he had paid for my medicines and food. So, I never really came out of that cycle of debt.”

Kishan was ‘liberated’ about two years back; currently, he works under the MGNREGS. Several others tell their stories of years of subjugation. Most of them worked as bonded labourers for Sikh landlords who migrated here about 50 years back. “These Sikhs bought huge tracts of fertile land of the Sahariyas. Landlords, in connivance with government officials, purchased their land. Sahariyas, who were forest-dwellers, had no understanding of the patta (land lease) system, so they didn’t occupy them and continued to depend on forest produce and cyclical cultivation,” says Motilal of Sankalp, an NGO.

Adding to their distress, the land came under the jurisdiction of the forest department. This started a vicious battle between the revenue and forest departments. Consequently, the tribals were forced to pay exorbitant fines for the use of forest land by the forest department. Motilal reveals that the poor Sahariyas have paid a huge amount of their hard-earned money as fines — and continue to do so.

With their fertile land usurped by these powerful landlords, the Sahariyas were left with no livelihood options. They were forced to work as bonded labourers on the land that once belonged to them. In despair and totally broken, some of them migrated, but were still exploited and paid low wages for their hard work. The ones who stayed back were trapped in a circle of debt till the time the movement started in 2010 to free them of bondage. 

“I became bonded labour after my father died. He had taken a loan from Sardar Amrao Singh, so I had to repay it by working on his land. Since childhood, I have only witnessed misery,”

MGNREGS came as a ray of hope. However, there are glaring problems. In the absence of awareness or information, these tribals believe whatever is told to them by government officials or local musclemen. When we enquired about job cards or wages, most of them seemed blank. “They are with the caretaker of the project site. So are the passbooks,” says Kishan.

People have no idea how much they are supposed to get as wages. “We take whatever the caretaker gives us,” a villager said. Also, caste dynamics plays a vicious role. The panchayat is dominated by Gujjars who resist a Sahariya caretaker. They ensure that only wages for a particular task are divided between the Sahariyas who work on the ground; the names of local Gujjars have been fraudulently entered into muster rolls. At the worksite, there is no water to drink or a crèche for children. The villagers have to walk long distances to fetch drinking water. With no crèches, women have to take care of the children; they lose out on the chance to earn their share of wages.

Government agencies and NGOs claim that the hali system has been abolished. However, Hardnews discovered that villagers are still being trapped as halis and they are too scared to protest. “My husband works as a hali in a Gujjar landlord’s field. He leaves early morning and comes home late at night; he has been working for a year. We took a loan of Rs 15,000 for our daughters treatment. Since then, we have been sweating it out in his field,” says Suman of Sunda village.

Munna Lal of Sunda too worked as a hali on a Gujjar landlord’s land; he was ‘rescued’ recently. The dark irony is that many Sahariyas can again be trapped in bonded labour if they don’t get any alternative employment. “People don’t become halis by choice. They become halis when they are in need of a substantial amount of cash, for medicines, weddings, a sudden crisis,” says Munna Lal.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2013