Debt bondage is the most common form of modern slavery. Found predominantly in South Asia and South America, it occurs when a person pledges their labor or that of a child for an indefinite period of time in return for financial credit. There are millions of bonded laborers in India. Debts arise from two main sources: an urgent crisis such as illness, injury, or famine, and the need to pay for death rites or marriage celebrations. Technically, bonded laborers can end their servitude once the debt is repaid, but this rarely occurs. A combination of low wages and high interest rates makes it impossible to repay the initial debt, and the debt usually increases because the employer deducts payment for equipment and living expenses, or charges fines for faulty work. According to India’s laws, families can simply walk away from debt and bondage, but this is usually impossible: if families try to leave, the slaveholder’s thugs retaliate with beatings, rape and forced eviction. If a family survives the beatings, they are free to starve. Without access to jobs, health care, community support or credit, independence is impossible to sustain, and they re-enter debt bondage.
Munni Devi narrated her story while enslaved as a bonded laborer in the rock quarries of Uttar Pradesh, India. She finds the idea of escape impossible. But the day before Munni told her story in November 2004, Ramphal (an abolitionist and former quarry slave in Uttar Pradesh) explained of slaves like Munnii: “We keep…showing them…the life we lead now, and they’re keen to get out of bondage, so it’ll happen. It’s just a question of time.”
My name is Munni Devi. I’m 35 to 40 years old. I have four children, two boys and two girls. I’ve been working in the quarry for a long, long time, many years. Maybe 20 years, maybe more. I’m not sure. My husband died while working there and now I have to work there myself. Life is tough. I’ve taken a loan because of which I’m a slave to the person from whom I took it. And now the situation is getting even worse. I’m in debt. I can’t work that much and he threatens to throw me out of my house. My poor son is just running from pillar to post to organize things. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
I’ve been working under the same contractor and I’ve taken one loan and now it seems to have doubled to become two loans. I’m not really earning too much and my debt is increasing. My original loan was for 9000 rupees [$200] and I’ve been trying to repay it for long long time. It just seems to be increasing. I took it for the marriage of my daughter. I’m not paid any money or salary except once in a while when the lorry comes to be loaded I’m paid about 400 or 500 rupees [$9-11] depending on his mood. The lorry only comes when all of us are able to break down the hard rocks into tiny pieces. As and when the tiny pieces are ready, the lorry turns up. I would say the process of breaking hard rocks into tiny pebbles takes about 15 days.
I am forced to work. If I have something important to do at home, I am forced to work. Even if I’m sick, I’m made to work. They don’t look after my expenses, my food. There’s no nourishment coming from that side whatsoever. When I’m not working my loan amount is escalating monthly. I have been threatened, verbally that is. The threat has been that he’s going to throw me out of my house. He keeps coming over once in a while and saying he’ll throw me out, put a lock on my door so I can’t use my own house. We’re trying to do something about it. Once when he did come earlier we all got together, abused him and made sure he went out of the village. But I’m not sure how long that tactic will work. I am scared. I am scared because at least in the daytime I have my children around me and it’s possible they will protect me. But then that’s the daytime. In the night when my children are not around me, I’m more vulnerable and somebody could just come and do anything. Beat me up, thrash me.
I think I must have paid about half the loan by now, and half might still be due. But then again that’s not taking into account the fact that he may be cheating me. If that’s the case, I’m not sure how much of my loan has been repaid. What he’s doing is not right. I don’t know what the law says but I don’t think it’s right. I have no choices. Where will I go? What will I do? This is my house. This is my home. This is the only way I can survive because I have no money and that is all I can do. I can’t run away. How will I run? Where will I run? What will I run towards? I’m here. I spend my whole day here.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, November 3, 2004, in Son Barsa, Uttar Pradesh, India.