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.
“Nisha’s” story reveals how illness in one family member can result in the debt bondage of a whole family, as the finances required for treatment can necessitate the poor accepting huge amounts of debt, which enter the family into a contract of work with the lender.
Five years back my husband died. I have 5 daughters and one son. Out of my 5 daughters 3 are married and 2 are unmarried. My son who is the reason behind my life has gone out to work. I don’t know anything about him as to where he has gone. I work in the fields in the village to earn money. I used to get Rs 80 / 100 daily. This was not enough to run the house but I was still happy. My son also sent money to us sometimes.
Meanwhile my daughter started keeping unwell. I took money from a few places and then got her treated and got to know that my daughters kidney wasn’t working. I needed more money for her treatment so I took Rs 5000 from the mahajan and I started getting my daughter treated for her illness. Because of my daughters ill health and the running around I too got sick and I also had to take money for my treatment. Even after so much of treatment there was no improvement in my daughter’s health. I again went to the mahajan’s house for more money but he refused to give and said the previous money I have taken I still haven’t returned so how can I hope to get the other loan...
When I heard this I cried at the mahajan’s feet and said that I will return all your money but right now I need some or else my daughter will die. The mahajan then gave me Rs 3000 and said to come with my other daughter and work at their place. This way I will be able to return some money at least. I agreed to the mahajan’s advice and took money from him and came around to work for him from the next day. I got my daughter treated further from that money. My daughter and I had to work for 7 / 8 hours at the mahajan’s place and many times on festivals etc also I had to work for late nights. Our state was getting bad every day. The Rs 50 we got from the mahajan wasn’t enough to run the family. We hardly managed 2 meals from it. On top of it there was an ill child at home. She is not able to get better despite so much money being spent on her.
The doctor says that it is urgent to get the kidney’s operation done soon. This requires Rs 50,000 or so of money for the operation. I am so poor that I cannot manage even Rs 500 or so of money. We cannot manage so much money. Nobody will give me money now so that I can get my daughter treated soon.
Whenever I tell my owner that I can repay your money by working somewhere else too so let me work anywhere else. If I work anywhere else I would get Rs 150 or Rs 200. The owner then abused us and said when we have to take money we work well and whole heartedly. He said I used to say I will earn money at your place and repay the loan. So what has happened now? He said till I earn money I will have to stay there and work at his place.
My state is such that even if I want I cannot change my condition. I am just somehow spending my life miserably and cannot change my condition. Even if I want I cannot do anything for my daughter. My son who can work and give us money doesn’t find out about us and has nothing to do anything with us.
As told to the Institute of Development Studies