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.
Bhagyalakshmi tells of how she was forced to leave her studies when her mother became ill and her father had to borrow money to pay for an operation. Bhagyalakshmi was forced to work in a mill in order to help pay off the debt, working 10 hours a day with little rest. After working for 2 years Bhagyalakshmi was married and thought her life would get better. However, her husband was also poor and slowly became an alcoholic, leaving her to carry out all the household responsibilities and work to provide the family with an income. One day her husband became ill and Bhagyalakshmi was forced to borrow money and once again pay off her debt working at the mill, where she and other women developed health issues and were subjected to physical violence and sexual exploitation.
My name is Bhagyalakshmi, age 27. I was born and bought up in this Manjanayyakkanpatti. We did not have any land. So my father went to work as daily wage labourer. Even my mother was a daily wage worker. Sometimes they did not have work and stayed at home. I have four siblings; two younger brothers and two elder sisters. Even though we were born in the village my parents gave us education. I wanted to study well and get a good job and raise my children; this was my dream. With such big dreams I went to school. I could not continue my education after 10th standard. My mother fell ill and had to undergo an operation; my father had to borrow huge money for the expense. My family was pushed to a very difficult situation. So my father discontinued my studies and joined me at the Vedasandur’s ‘Every ready’ mill; I used to go with other girls in the village. I joined in the three-year scheme; after completing three years of work they said I will get 40,000 rupees. I and my father had to sign some papers. Some of the papers were in English and some were blank papers. I started to go for the mill work. After I finished my three years of work my father thought with that amount he can settle my marriage. I saw that my classmates were going to school when I was going for mill work. I felt very sad seeing that. I used to feel sorry for my situation. The work at the mill was very difficult. I told my father that I could not stand and work continuously for 10 hours at a stretch. He said what to do our family situation is bad you have to go for work. I did not have any other way so I went for the mill work. After coming back from the mill work my mother used to keep hot water for bathing; I used to take a bath and go to sleep. I did not like the job but was forced to go because of the family situation; thinking of the job I used to cry.
As time went by I became used to the routine. I used to comfort myself by saying, “If I am born poor this is the prize I will get”. Was I treated as a human? It was questionable. I was crushed by the work is all I can say. After completing two years of work I got married. I was happy that I could escape the ‘mill prison’; little did I know that there was another one waiting. I asked my scheme money at the mill. You have not completed the three years so you cannot get the scheme money they said. My father fought with them strongly and told them to give my two years of the scheme amount. So they gave us 20,000 rupees only. With that amount and some money borrowed my father married me off. Somehow my parents fulfilled their duty by marrying me. After that only I have to live my life. I lived quietly for some time at my husband’s place. I realised that my husband family also was very poor; I come from a poor family so I will get someone from same situation only, how can I get a king? So I went back to the mill work after six months of marriage; the only job that I knew. It became very hard as I had to go the mill work and also come back home and finish the household work also. I became pregnant. I worked hard even in that situation. I delivered a beautiful girl baby. I was worried looking at my baby, whether she will also suffer like me? I decided strongly then that I will raise my child even if I had to work hard. My husband was slowly becoming an alcoholic. My husband started his day by drinking; he was not worth paisa. “If married to a donkey you have to bear the burden”. All my dreams I thought I will make a reality through my child; with this thought my life went on.
Till my child was four years of age I was going for the mill work. When I got the monthly salary I used to give some money so my husband could drink; otherwise he would come and fight with me. As time went by I had to completely take care of the house. My mother-in-law fell sick. I had to see to her medical expenses also. My father-in-law abandoned us. After some time, my mother-in-law passed away. I did not go to work for two months; I thought my husband would come to his senses. But my useless husband started to drink much more. I tolerated my husband just for my child’s sake. So I did not bother about his drinking and also about the fact he was not worth a paisa. When my child was in the second standard my husband’s torture started to increase; rather than doing cooking most of the time I was fighting with him. I could not do both the mill work and come home and be at peace. I started to hate living; I did not want to stay alive. To suffer daily I thought let me die; so I decided to hang myself. I went and bought a rope. When I went to hang myself I heard the sound of my daughter. Immediately I stopped myself saying, after I die who will a take care of my child? My husband drank heavily. Because of that his intestines became weak and he had to be admitted to hospital. All the expenses were taken care by me. After fifteen days of hospitalisation he became better and we came home. I could not go for any work during that time. To care for my husband, I had to borrow a huge amount of money from most of the village people and became a debtor. I thought after this he will not drink. After one month he started to drink again; how a single person can manage alone. Seeing my difficult situation my parents used to give me now and then some 100 or 200 rupees. Even my parents were in a very difficult situation. My mother used to frequently come and see me. Whenever she prepares something nice she brings it for me. She was very much worried about my situation. She was my only security and help in the whole world.
My father became ill. I used to go sometimes and visit him and my younger brother. I could not do much as I was also going for the mill work. The mill job was not like early one; if within eight hours we do not get the manufactured product they will scold us. If we had to go to toilet we can go only for five minutes. We didn’t even have enough time to eat. As time went by the mill job became more difficult. I joined another scheme to pay off my debts. Since I could not go regularly for work they said that they cannot give me the scheme money. “Misfortunes never come singly” – such was my state. All my dreams to pay off my debt became impossible; I cried because I had worked for three years in difficult situation yet could not get money. My health was spoilt because of the hard work. I felt helpless. Form my stomach they removed three cotton balls. I had to go for treatment. Only one day in the mill was I happy: the day when I met all the other workers and they shared their problems and I could also share mine. In tears I shared my problems with them; I felt like half of my burden had come down. When I realised that the other women workers’ problems were much more severe than mine I felt little better. It was workers’ day. All of us had food and was feeling relaxed. That day I will never forget for all of my life.
When I was working the supervisors used to ill-treat me; they used to scold very badly. I had a co-worker called Shanthi. The supervisor used to follow her everywhere. He used to touch her and speak; once I saw him touch her breast. I felt very sad after that incident. She could not speak against him; if anything was said against them they would take revenge on us.
All who work at the mill are bonded labourers. We do not have opportunities to even speak about our problems. Because of our family situation we go for work; there they treat us like tools. We go to work to improve our situation; but there the situation is much worse. My only aim is to make my children study well and send them to a good job. How can I run my family with a day wage of 230 rupees? That is the situation I am in. I hope for a better dawn.
Story 3 as told to the Institute of Development Studies for their report 'Patterns and Dynamics of Bonded Labour and Child Labour in the Spinning Mills of Tamil Nadu: Findings from Life Story Analysis'