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. While bonded labour has been outlawed for decades, survey data and pre-existing research confirms that this practice still persists. Bonded labour is not only illegal, research confirms that it has serious negative health impacts for those affected, who typically work in unsanitary and dangerous working conditions with no access to health care.
Riya tells of how she was forced to live and work on her employer's land as her family could not afford a house of their own. When her son became ill and she had to take a loan in order to pay for the treatment. Riya and her family were forced to work to pay off the loan and due to pressure from her employer, Riya had to take her son out of school for him to work long hours in the employer's home where he was subjected to threats and physical violence.
We don’t even have a house of our own. For two to three generations we have been settled at our owner’s land. I have four sons. I have married off my eldest son and three of my sons are still unmarried. My husband and eldest son work at a brick factory at Rohua. We have to work at our owner’s place.
Once my middle son had kalazahar and to treat that I took loan from the owner at Rs. 12 interest monthly. The loan money amounted to Rs. 4000 and we have just paid half of it till now. Recently the owner has been pressurizing us to repay the money. He told us to repay the money or else send the youngest child to look after the cattle. I told him I have put him in the school and he cannot go so instead we will all work for him. He replied that if I come over then who would look after the house and said that my son can never become a collector after all those studies. He said if I want him to become a collector I should empty the land first.
A poor man is nothing and however much we didn’t want we were forced to send our son to work for the owner. My 12-year-old son tirelessly works from 5 am till 8 pm at night. If ever he errs a little he is beaten up for it. One day he was getting tea when accidently he broke the cup while getting it. The owner’s son beat him with a stick and abused him for not seeing while walking and breaking such an expensive cup. He then pushed him from the porch so hard that he fell on the courtyard and broke his ankle and knee very badly. They were not even letting him cry. I was passing by and I told the owner’s son why he beat a little boy so much for just 2 cups. He told me how can I talk back being a mahadalit and asked me to run away otherwise they would beat me up too. I couldn’t do anything but soothe my son and then went back for my work.
I understood that being born poor, I was destined to bear all this. I don’t know how to spend my life. I am somehow spending my own life but am worried for my children’s lives. I just want to somehow repay the money so that we don’t have to work anymore for him. I am not able to think how I will manage this.
Life Story 8 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'