Saturday, March 22, 2014

Slavery in Rural India?

(A flashback from Old days...) 

My days in PRADAN seem to an old yet fresh memory...almost a decade has passed since my days of working at the grassroots. Yet, every now and then, some or the other trigger causes me to go for a flashback like the typical Bollywood movie... 

Last Sunday during a dinner someone asked me about my views on Slavery in India.. and I was almost immediately transported to my days working in the villages in Madhya Pradesh, reminded of the harwaha system (also called Bandhua Majdoor/ Bonded laborer) there. I am sure that this system would still be going on in some part of the MP/country under the same or a different name. 

Harwaha (a landless laborer - one who tills the land for other, better off farmers) was a common sight in villages where I used to work as an NGO worker. Typically in this system, a person (in most cases belonging to Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribes) becomes subservient to the money lender for a fixed duration (usually a year) in lieu of a lump sum amount. It’s nearly being a slave as for an amount as less as Rs. 12,000 (in 2002-04) the harwaha has to work 10-12 hours a day in the field or the home of the person he has borrowed money from with little or no chances of taking leave. He can’t take up any other work and cannot go out without the permission of the money lender. 

It is clearly an exploitative situation. The big question is “why”? Why would a person agree to such harsh terms of working for such a less amount? I asked this to a harwaha that I was friends with and the answer I got was very simple, yet intelligent. 

Harwaha system, despite its inherent exploitative nature, is like an insurance policy for the ultra-poor. In a joint family of landless labourers (say of 4 brothers and their parents), its not guaranteed that everyone will get a job. Situation is dicey, sometimes they get job, sometimes they don’t. In such circumstance, one of the brother volunteers to become a harwaha to some big farmer. 

It serves two purposes: First is that it guarantees a lump sum amount for the family. Second is, in case of any emergency, the money lender can be approached for more money with a promise of serving one more year. 

These people are typically so poor that after the harvest they would sweep the field to pick up a kilo or two of the grains that got spilled in the field during harvesting. This system is full of financial, mental and even physical exploitation and to me is a civilized name for slavery in India. I hope and pray to God that no person or family should be forced to get into such exploitative system ever.

Happy Farmers in Kankerkhedi after a good Soyabean Crop (2003)