India has a population of more than 1.3 billion people, there are still at least 270 million people living on less than US$1.90 per day. While laws, systems and attitudes regarding key 'fault lines' such as the caste system, gender and feudalism are rapidly changing, social change of this depth and scale necessarily takes time. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that existing research suggests that all forms of modern slavery continue to exist in India, including intergenerational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into nonstate armed groups and forced marriage.
Sanjay was forced to borrow money from someone in his village when members of his family became ill. In order to pay back the debt Sanjay was forced to work hard labour. When people started demanding their money back, Sanjay's son offered to travel to Gujarat to do construction work and send money back. However, this money soon stopped. Unable to repay his debt Sanjay went to the local Panchayat but was informed he had to return the money any way he could. Sanjay was therefore forced to work wherever he was told until the loans had been repaid.
I am Sanjay Rajkumar from Gyaspur Block, Sivan District, Bihar. I belong to a very poor family. My father somehow managed to provide for the family’s subsistence needs by working in the village itself. My village is close to a river and so there are regular floods in the village. My village is extremely backward and has been left behind in terms of education. My parents are uneducated and hence, never had much interest in getting me educated. I am also illiterate. I was married at a very early age, which led to my wife and I having children early. I have four children. My financial condition worsened as the family size grew. My wife became very unwell one day soon after marriage. I had to borrow money from someone in the village and then took my wife to the doctor for a checkup. My wife got well but soon after, my father became ill. I had to take on a new loan of money even when I had not been able to repay the earlier loan. My father died due to his illness. I had to borrow money for his last rites too. I started doing hard labour in the village itself to be able to repay the loans and run my household. My old mother died soon after this. I had to borrow money for her last rites too. I had taken too much money from people and was very worried. Whatever I earned from labour in the village was not enough to provide for my family. People had started coming to me demanding their money back. I could not see a way out of this situation. My eldest son, who I somehow managed to get educated till Class 10th, saw me one day and said, “Babuji, don’t worry, I’ll work to repay all loans.”
Many people from my village were leaving to find work and earn in Gujarat. My son started insisting that I send him with them. I needed the money, so I agreed. My son left with the 10-12 people who were going to Gujarat. In Gujarat, my son found a job in a construction company through a contractor. He sent money home a few times but this stopped after a while. When I asked the people he went with, they told me that the company extracts a minimum of twelve hours’ work every day but does not pay wages on time. When I spoke to my son I told him to come home if he was finding it too difficult. My son returned in a few days’ time. After his return, we started to work in the village or in the city to be able to run the household. We managed to be able to run the house but never managed to collect enough money to repay our loans.
The people we had lent money from started coming home to ask for the repayment. One man who we owed money came home and took our cow. We appealed to the Panchayat in our village and all five of them said that we had to repay the money we had borrowed any which way, be it doing hard labour or giving up our cattle. We have no choice; we have to work where they tell us to work.
No one is to blame for this. God is only punishing me for the sins of my previous life.
Life Story 6 as told to the Institute of Development Studies for their report 'Patterns and Dynamics of Slavery and Bonded Labour in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh: Findings from Life Story Analysis'