lawyers in India

The Removal of Bonded Labour System in India

Written by: Ajay Bishnoi, Gujarat National Law University, 2nd year
Right To Information
Legal Service
  • The phenomenon of bonded labour is a vicious circle where each factor is responsible for further subjugation and apathy of the bonded labourers. The first part of the chain forming the vicious circle is the survival capabilities of this system. It is a relic of colonial and feudal system, which is still continuing. This relic is deeply rooted in the social customs and traditions, treating it as a normal practice. This results in the creation of a hierarchical pattern of society forming unequal classes in terms of superiority and inferiority. The so-called higher classes then commit all sorts of atrocities upon the considered lower classes. The system of bonded labour is an outcome of certain categories of indebtedness which have been prevailing for a long time involving certain economically, exploited, helpless and weaker sections of the society. The bonded or forced labour system was known by different names in different parts of the country like Begar, Sagri or Hali, Jeetham etc. The problem of bonded labour was closely linked to the broader socioeconomic problems of surplus labour, unemployment/under-employment, inequitable distribution of land and assets, low wages, distress migration, social customs etc.

    The issue of ‘bonded labour’ came to the forefront as a national issue, when it was included in the old 20-Point Programme in 1975. It was the 5th point of the Programme which stated that bonded labour, wherever it exists will be declared illegal. To implement this, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Ordinance was promulgated. Which was later on replaced by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. It freed unilaterally all the bonded labourers from bondage with simultaneous liquidation of their debts.

    Concepts of bonded labor system

    Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) [Article 2(i)] —The term forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service, which is exacted, from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights —On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 says: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

    UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (1956) — Under this Convention debt bondage is defined as the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal service or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.

    As per I.L.O. Report on Stopping Forced Labour (2001) — The term (Bonded Labour) refers to a worker who rendered service under condition of bondage arising from economic consideration, notably indebtedness through a loan or an advance. Where debt is the root cause of bondage, the implication is that the worker (or dependents or heirs) is tied to a particular creditor for a specified or unspecified period until the loan is repaid.

    As per the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976:

    bonded labour means any labour or service rendered under the bonded labour system-Section 2 (e).
    bonded labourer means a labourer who incurs, or has, or is presumed to have incurred a bonded debt-Section 2(f).
    bonded labour system means the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that he would-
    i. render, by himself or through any member of his family, or any person dependent on him, labour or service to the creditor, or for the benefit of the creditor, for a specified period or for any unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages, or
    ii. for the freedom of employment or other means of livelihood for a specified period or for an unspecified period, or
    iii. forfeit the right to move freely throughout the territory of India, or
    iv. forfeit the right to appropriate or sell at market value any of his property or product of his labour or the labour of a member of his family or any person dependent on him;

    and includes the system of forced, or partly forced, labour under which a surety for a debtor enters, or has, or is presumed to have, entered, into an agreement with the creditor to the effect that in the event of the failure of the debtor to repay the debt, he would render the bonded labour on behalf of the debtor-Section 2(g)

    Through its various judgments, Supreme Court has given a very broad, liberal and expansive interpretation of the definition of the bonded labour. According to the interpretation given by the apex court, where a person provided labour or service to another for remuneration less than the minimum wage, the labour or service falls clearly within the scope and ambit of the words forced labour under the constitution.

    Constitutional And Legal Provisions

    The Constitution of India:
    The Constitution of India guarantees all its citizens-justice, social, economic and political; freedom or thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equity of status and opportunity and fraternity, dignity of individual and unity of the Nation.

    Under Article 23. Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour - Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from imposing compulsory service for public purposes, and in imposing such service the State shall not make any discrimination on grounds only on religion, race, caste or class or any of them.

    Under Article 42. Provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief - The State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

    Under Article 43. Living wage, etc. for workers - The State shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organization or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work and living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities and, in particular the State shall endeavour to promote cottage industrial on an individual or co-operative basis in rural areas.

    Indian Penal Code:

    Under Section 374. Unlawful compulsory labour - Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labour against the will of that person, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

    Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933:

    Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933 says that unless there is something repugnant in the subject or context – an agreement of pledging the labour of child means an agreement written or oral, express or implied, whereby the parent or guardian of a child, in return for any payment or benefit received or to be received by him, undertakes to cause or allow the services of the child to be utilized in any employment. Provided that any agreement made without detriment to a child, and not made in consideration of any benefit other than reasonable wages to be paid for the child’s services and terminable at not more than a weeks notice, is not an agreement within the meaning of this definition. It also says that Whoever, being the parent or guardian of a child, makes an agreement to pledge the labour of that child, shall be punished with fine which may extend up to fifty rupees.

    Commentary on The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976

    On commencement of this Act the bonded labour system shall stand abolished and every bonded labourer shall stand freed and discharged free from any obligation to render bonded labour.
    Any custom, agreement or other instrument by virtue of which a person is required to render any service as bonded labour shall be void.
    Liability to repay bonded debt shall be deemed to have been extinguished.
    Property of the bonded labourer to be freed from mortgage etc.
    Freed bonded labourers shall not be evicted from homesteads or other residential premises which he was occupying as part of consideration for the bonded labour.
    District Magistrates have been entrusted with certain duties and responsibilities for implementing the provision of this Act.
    Vigilance committees are required to be constituted at district and sub-divisional levels.
    Offences for contravention of provisions of the Act are punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also with fines which may extend to two thousand rupees.
    Powers of Judicial Magistrates are required to be conferred on Executive Magistrates for trial of offences under this Act. Offences under this Act may be tried summarily.
    Every offence under this Act shall be cognizable and bailable.

    International Law on Bonded Labour Applicable in India

    In addition to domestic laws, India is a party to numerous international human rights conventions and is thus legally bound by them. An extensive review is presented by the Human Rights Watch report on bonded labor in India. These laws include;

    Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery, 1926

    This convention requires signatories to prevent and suppress the slave trade and to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms. It also obligates parties to take all necessary measures to prevent compulsory or forced labor from developing into conditions analogous to slavery. Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery, signed at Geneva, September 25, 1926; Protocol Amended the Slavery Convention, signed at Geneva, September 25, 1926, with annex, done at, New York, December 7, 1953, entered into force, December 7, 1953. A slave is someone over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, done at Geneva, September 7, 1956; entered into force, April 30, 1957 (Supplementary Convention).

    Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1956
    The supplementary convention on slavery offers further clarification of prohibited practices and refers specifically to debt bondage and child servitude as institutions similar to slavery.

    Forced Labour Convention, 1930

    The International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.) Forced Labour Convention requires signatories to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms in the shortest period possible.[1] In 1957, the I.L.O. explicitly incorporated debt bondage and serfdom within its definition of forced labor.[2] India, however, chose not to sign this convention.

    International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (I.C.C.P.R.), 1966

    Article 8 of the I.C.C.P.R. prohibits slavery and the slave trade in all their forms, servitude, and forced or compulsory labor. Article 24 entitles all children to the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.[3]

    International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (I.C.E.S.C.R.), 1966
    Article 7 of the I.C.E.S.C.R. provides that States Parties shall recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work. Article 10 requires Parties to protect children and young persons... from economic and social exploitation.

    Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

    Article 32: States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or... be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.[4] States are directed to implement and ensure these protections.
    Article 35: States Parties shall take all appropriate . . . measures to prevent the abduction, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form. A significant portion of the bonded child laborers of India are trafficked from one state to another, and some are sold outright.[5]
    Article 36: States Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare.[6]

    International Labour Organization (I.L.O.) Conventions

    There are two I.L.O. Conventions, Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (1930) and Convention No. 105 concerning Abolition of Forced Labour (1957).
    Government of India has ratified both the Conventions.

    Convention No. 29 cast an obligation on the Members of the I.L.O. which ratifies this Convention to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its form within the
    shortest possible period. For the purpose of this Convention, the term forced or compulsory labour means all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.

    Under Convention 105, each Member of the I.L.O. which ratifies this Convention is required to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour-
    # as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system;
    # as a method mobilizing and using labour for purposes of economic development;
    # as a means of labour discipline;
    # as punishment for having participated in strike;
    # as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.

    According to the Act, bonded labour was abolished on October 25, 1975, and the bonded labourers stood freed and discharged from any bonded labour obligations. The Act also extinguished any obligation to repay any bonded debt. The Act further provides that whoever compels any person to bonded labour should be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and is also liable to pay a fine of Rs. 2000.
    District, State, and National Responsibility for Bonded Labor

    States are responsible for enforcing the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and do so through their district magistrates, in some states called district collectors or deputy commissioners, who are directed to form bonded labor "vigilance committees." The central government is responsible for ensuring that states enforce the act and that the vigilance committees are formed.[7] The central government funds state surveys of bonded labor, evaluations of the bonded labor law's implementation, and public awareness campaigns.[8] It also provides half of the funds for rehabilitation assistance, which is currently set at a total of Rs. 20,000 (U.S.$417) per bonded laborer, slightly less than the annual per capita income.[9]

    District magistrates are appointed civil servants and are the top authorities at the district level. They oversee government administration, including the administration of justice, and some fifty to sixty distinct departments.[10] Their wide array of duties includes identifying cases of bonded labor in their districts, freeing the laborers, initiating prosecutions, making sure available credit sources are in place so that freed laborers will not be forced into bondage again, and constituting and participating in the vigilance committees.[11] The vigilance committees are charged with advising the district magistrate to ensure that the bonded labor law is properly implemented; providing for the economic and social rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers; coordinating the functions of rural banks and cooperative societies to help ensure freed bonded laborers have access to credit; monitoring "the number of offenses of which cognizance ought to be taken under the act"; and defending freed bonded labosvfrers against attempts to recover the bonded debt. In 1996 Human Rights Watch found that very few vigilance committees had even been formed and was unable to find any district in which such a committee was operative.

    In April 2002, officials in the Ministry of Labour told Human Rights Watch that vigilance committees had been created for every district. But regardless of whether they exist in name, almost none are actually functioning.[12] According to NHRC Special Rapporteur Chaman Lal, the commission investigated and found that the vigilance committees "were non-existent or defunct and, where they had been revived, they were not doing work."[13] The commission has been trying to revive them, he said.[14] According to a high-ranking government official in Tamil Nadu:

    On paper, the vigilance committees look good. But they are packed with people who belong to the ruling party. It is a status symbol to be a member. Every district collector has learned that to form a committee, he has to consult with the [party] Secretariat. Even S.C./S.T.s [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members] will still belong to the ruling party so they toe the line. . . . Until now, the committee hasn't been involved in rehabilitation. The stereotype is that there will be a ten minute long meeting just to say that there is no bonded labor.[15]

    Role of The National Human Rights Commission

    The Apex Court has directed that the National Human Rights Commission (N.H.R.C.) should be involved in dealing with the issue of bonded labour. In pursuance to the above order, a Central Action Group has been constituted in the N.H.R.C. This Group is holding regular meetings and the matter is being pursued with the State Governments.

    In Bandhuwa Mukti Morcha case[16] also the Supreme Court had issued certain directions to the Central Government, the State of Haryana and various authorities. In order to ensure compliance of the above directions, Ministry of Labour constituted a Task Force, comprising of officers of the Central and the Government of Haryana who are responsible for enforcement of various labour laws. The Task Force was required to undertake periodic visits and inspections of the Stone Quarries and Crushers to ascertain facts about working and living conditions of the workers. The Task Force is carrying out its assignment regularly and submitting reports to the Central as well as the State Government indicating therein status of compliance on the part of the concerned authorities with the statutory provisions and the directions of the Supreme Court.

    Recommendations of The Second National Commission on Labour

    Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 is not a labour law but only a welfare legislation. While all the other labour laws relate to situations where there is an employer-employee nexus, this is about the only law where the reverse takes place i.e., even the existing relation of master-servant is snapped, the affected person released from bondage and provision sought to be made for his/her rehabilitation. The Commission regards the implementation of this law by the Ministry of Labour as appropriate, as it emanates from Article 23 of the Constitution and deals with working people.

    Conclusion: Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme For Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour
    In order to assist the State Government in their task of rehabilitation of released bonded labourers, the Ministry of Labour launched a Centrally Sponsored Scheme since May, 1978 for rehabilitation of bonded labourers. Under this Scheme rehabilitation assistance of Rs. 20,000/- per freed bonded labour is provided, which is shared by the Central and State Governments on 50:50 basis; in the case of the Seven North Eastern States, 100% central assistance if they express their inability to provide their share. The Scheme also provide for financing of the following activities. Rs. 2.00 lakhs per sensitive district can be provided to concerned state government to conduct survey for identification of bonded labour once in three years.

    Central assistance of Rs. 10.00 lakhs every year can be sanctioned to every state government to undertake awareness generation activities relating to bonded labour system.
    Rs. 5.00 lakhs per year can be sanctioned to every state government to study impact of existing land-debt related issues affecting bonded labourers and the impact of poverty alleviation programmes and financial assistance provided by various Government sources so far.
    Besides above the States Governments have also been advised to integrate/ dovetail the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for rehabilitation of bonded labour with other ongoing poverty alleviation schemes such as Swaran Jayanti Gram Sewa Rojgar Yojana (S.J.G.S.R.Y.), Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes, Tribal Sub-Plan etc.

    Accordingly, the rehabilitation package provided by the concerned Stated Governments for the freed bonded labourers includes the following major components:
    Allotment of house-site and agricultural land;
    Land development;
    Provision of low cost dwelling units;
    Animal husbandry, dairy, poultry, piggery etc.;
    Training for acquiring new skills; developing existing skills;
    Wage employment, enforcement of minimum wages etc.;
    Collection and processing of minor forest products;
    Supply of essential commodities under targeted public distribution system;
    Education for children; and
    Protection of civil rights.

    Details on bonded labourers identified/released and rehabilitated as reported by the respective State Governments and the Central Assistance released so far under the above mentioned Centrally Sponsored Scheme are given in the following Table:-

    Name of the State

    Number of Bonded Labourers
    Identified and Released Rehabilitated Central assistance provided (Rs. in lakhs)
    Andhra Pradesh 36,289 29,552 680.10
    Bihar (including Jharkhand) 13,112 12,396 317.28
    Karnataka 63,583 56,106 1470.28
    Madhya Pradesh (including Chattisgarh) 12,928 12,021 158.75
    Orissa 49,971 46,843 898.13
    Rajasthan 7,478 6,321 71.42
    Maharashtra 1,401 1,319 9.55
    Uttar Pradesh (including Uttranchal) 27,797 27,797 533.22
    Kerala 823 710 15.56
    Haryana 544 28 0.82
    Gujarat 64 64 1.01
    Arunachal Pradesh 3,526 1,992 568.94
    Tamil Nadu 65,573 65,573 1661.94
    Punjab 69 69 6.90
    Total 2,83,158 2,61,791 6393.44
    In addition, a sum of Rs. 291.00 lakhs has been released to various State Governments so far for conducting survey of bonded labourers, awareness generation and evaluatory studies under the Central Sponsored Scheme.

    [1] Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), 1930, adopted at Geneva, June 28, 1930, as modified by the Final Articles Revision Convention, adopted at Montreal, October 9, 1946.
    [2] International Labour Organisation, Conventions and Recommendations 1919-1966 (Geneva: I.L.O., 1966), p. 891. The I.L.O. also passed the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105) in 1957.
    [3] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (entered into force January 3, 1976)
    [4] Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/125, U.N. GAOR, 44th Session, Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/44/736 (1989) (entered into force September 2, 1990)
    [5] Human Rights Watch/Asia, Rape for Profit: Trafficking of Nepali Girls and Women to India’s Brothels (Human Rights Watch: New York, 1995)
    [6] Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/125, U.N. GAOR, 44th Session, Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/44/736 (1989) (entered into force September 2, 1990)
    [7] See Judgment in Writ Petition No. 1187 (1982), cited in Vivek Pandit, Prevention of Atrocities (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes): Bonded Labour, Their Rights and Implementation, 1995, p. 7.
    [8] Ministry of Labour, Government of India, Annual Report 2001-2002, p. 83.
    [9] In the northeastern states, the central government funds all rehabilitation assistance. Ibid. The government reports that it spent Rs 50.48 million (U.S.$1.22 million) for surveys and rehabilitation in 2001-2002 and that it had budgeted Rs. 40 million ($.83 million) for this in 2002-2003. Ministry of Labour, Government of India, Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (1976), (retrieved July 9, 2002)
    [10] Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery, p. 32.
    [11] Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976), secs. 2, 11-12.
    [12] See, e.g. Manoj Kumar, "Panel fights for bonded labourers," The Tribune: On-line Edition, June 21, 2002, (retrieved August 9, 2002) (reporting that "all district bonded labour vigilance committees in Punjab have become defunct").
    [13] Human Rights Watch interview with Chaman Lal, NHRC Special Rapporteur, New Delhi, March 11, 2002. According to the NHRC's annual report: "The Commission has noticed with regret that, in almost all the States, the Vigilance Committees that were established earlier are non-functional and that no serious effort has been taken to identify bonded labor even though the existence of such labor in as many as 100 districts and in specified industries has been well documented by various states." NHRC, Annual Report 1998-99, (retrieved July 30, 2002), para. 9.6.
    [14] Human Rights Watch interview with Chaman Lal, NHRC Special Rapporteur, New Delhi, March 11, 2002.
    [15] Human Rights Watch interview with Tamil Nadu government official, Tamil Nadu, March 18, 2002
    [16] See 1984 AIR 802 1984, SCR (2) 67 1984, SCC (3) 161 1983 ,SCALE (2)1151

    How To Submit Your Article:

    Follow the Procedure Below To Submit Your Articles

    Submit your Article by using our online form Click here
    Note* we only accept Original Articles, we will not accept Articles Already Published in other websites.
    For Further Details Contact: [email protected]

    Divorce by Mutual Consent in Delhi/NCR

    Mutual DivorceRight Away Call us at Ph no: 9650499965

    File Your Copyright - Right Now!

    Copyright Registration
    Online Copyright Registration in India
    Call us at: 9891244487 / or email at: [email protected]