On February 9, Tamil Nadu observed the Bonded Labour Abolition Day for the to mark the anniversary of the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act that was passed on the same day in 1976.

For the last few years, there has been a demand for the observance of this day, particularly from The Released Bonded Labour Association (RBLU), an organisation with a presence in several states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha. It was formed by survivors of bonded labour to help each other.

However, it is only now in 2020 that the Tamil Nadu government decided to designate a day to the cause. Government officials pledged to end bonded labour, and all stakeholders collaborated to raise awareness about this issue.

The Tamil Nadu Labour Welfare and Skill Development Department also issued the amended Standard Operating Procedure for bonded labour. The TN government claims to have made significant progress in the last one year, rescuing 201 bonded labours in 28 rescue operations through collaborations with NGOs across the state.

The Citizen takes a look at the big picture, how the bonded labour system works, how they are rescued, rehabilitated and what are the legal provisions that deal with bonded labour.

A maximum number of bonded labourers are found in brick kilns, sheep grazing and goat grazing units, packaging units, agriculture units, coir making units, domestic servitude, tree cutting industries and textiles. .

The ones who are targeted are usually those from the most vulnerable communities, those who are uneducated and those who have no other source of income. The offenders, who are owners of these units are usually bigwigs with political connections and influence on the police. They have middlemen who work for them and go to rural areas to bring labourers.

The trap

Once they identify the most vulnerable people, who are often desperately in need of money they offer an advance. The vulnerable people immediately accept the offer as they have no other choice. The minute they do, they are trapped. The sharks then tell the targets that in order to pay off their debts, they would have to come work for him. Initially, it sounds like a good plan. Sometimes, the middle men bring single men, sometimes they bring the whole family, so that they don't have a reason to leave. The advance amount is the main hold on them because they become liable to pay it back.

Life in bonded labour

After coming to the site of work, the labourers realise that nothing that was promised has happened. For instance, in the brick kilns, they are told they would get a certain sum every week, depending on how many bricks are made. But when it's payday, they are given a meager amount of around Rs 300 per week. When they question the owner about it, he says he has deducated it from the advance.

Gradually, days turn into months and months to years, and they still continue working for the same wages, not knowing when they will be able to clear the debts. Whenever they try to question the owner about how much debt is remaining, he increases the amount saying he needs to include the interest. Because the labourers are illiterate and don't understand the concept of interest or know how to calculate, they are taken advantage of. They are made to believe that they are liable to stay and work.

There are often trigger situations, for instance, when there is a family function or a funeral in the family. When they ask the owner for permission to visit their hometown, they are denied permission. In rare cases where they are allowed to go, the owner keeps their children or family with him so that he has some hold and assurance that the labourer will return.

Sometimes, the labourers experience verbal and physical abuse. The owners also scare them saying the police and politicians are on their side. If anyone tries to escape, they beat them up and show them as an example to others.

In Tamil Nadu, these labourers are mostly from the Irula tribe. They are physically strong people. They do hard labour - backbreaking work for almost 18 hours. In many cases, there are generations of bonded labour. The children are not allowed to go to school. They are also asked to help their parents work in order to reduce the pay off time. The owners know that if someone is educated, they will definitely fight back.

Since they are not allowed outside, they are also denied medical attention. They use their own traditional healing methods. The owners do not let them go to the hospital, even for delivery. There are some cases where the babies have died because of no medical attention. After delivery, mothers are required to get back to work immediately.

The Rescue process

The ultimate authority is the Revenue Divisional Officer. He decides whether it is a legitimate case of bonded labour or not. The information comes to him through different sources. Sometimes, it's through someone who's managed to escape and knows about others who are still trapped, sometimes it's through NGOs and sometimes the victims themselves call or approach.

Once the information is received, the RDO goes to the site to inspect. There are certain SOPs to be followed once it is decided that it's a bonded labour case. The RDO questions the labourers. The SOP requires that the labourer cannot be questioned in front of the owner, so he uses police protection to separate the owner and labourer and also has a social worker nearby to facilitate communication and help them understand that they are indeed there to help. The officer keeps all information confidential. This is how it should be, but most of the time is not.

In the few cases when the survivors are actually rescued, they undergo medical tests. Their statements are recorded by the authorities. The RDO then gives them certificates as proof that they have been released from bonded labour. This is crucial because they have no other identification documents. It is the release certificate that helps them open bank accounts, apply for ration cards. They are then entitled to all government provisions. They are sent back to their villages and local police are informed, as often they need protection from those who had kept them bonded. For the next few years, they are given survival training and rehabilitated with the help of NGOs.

"I worked for three years, but the debt was not settled"

Vasantha Elumalai, a mother of two and a survivor recalls her life in a brick kiln. " I grew up in Kavaniyathur, Thiruvanamalai in a thatched house. It was falling apart and I needed money to build it. My father was not keeping well either. So I went looking for loans. I was told that the foreman gives out loans. So I approached him and he gave me a loan of Rs 20,000. I must have been 16 years old at the time. I took the money, built a shed and took my father to the hospital. I also had a little baby then. The foreman told me that in order to pay off the debt, I would have to work for him, along with my family. He told me a bus would come to pick us up after Diwali. So we, along with five other families from my village went to work for him in a town called Ponneri."

"It was a brick kiln. There was no house, just an asbestos sheet. The place was filthy. We tidied it up and got some vegetables to start cooking. The routine was challenging. In the morning, the men wet the sand, after that I would finish cooking and other house work and then the women joined the men at work. Again at around 2am in the night, we left, along with our children,for the site. They would pay the whole family just Rs 300 per week. If we ask them for more, they'll say they have reduced it because of the advance we have taken. We also thought it's ok because anyway we would have to pay the sum later, so it's better they take it from our wages."

"Meanwhile, my father's condition worsened. My mother told me to come visit him. I asked the owner if I could go. He told me that there was a lot of work to do and he couldn't afford to let me go. My father passed away and I couldn't even meet him. It was heartbreaking. When I asked him to at least let me go for the funeral, he said I could go alone, leaving my husband and children there. He didn't give me any money to travel. I had an old gold earring. I sold that and came for the funeral."

"I thought to myself, even when my own father died, the owner didn't let me go. I wondered if I would ever be able to leave. The situation at the site was unbearable. We used to keep one day's food for two to three days. We even faced abuse. When my husband asked him permission to go to the funeral, he beat him up back and blue. I worked for three years, but they kept saying the debt was not paid. He kept talking about other expenses that they have paid on our behalf. They never explained it to us properly and we were afraid to ask."

"It was then that we heard about some people who escaped earlier. They gave us some contacts. We were afraid the owner would come to know if we made the call. But we gave it a try and told them everything. It was during monsoon. The heavy rains had damaged our roof. The six families huddled up, trying to protect ourselves from the heavy rain. Suddenly, we saw that an officer had come. We were curious, but the owner told us that he didn't come for us and shooed us away. The officer and the advocate with him saw us and said that they had indeed come to see us. It was like seeing God. All of us rushed to him, fell at his feet and begged him to take us away from there. If he didn't come that day, we don't know if we would even be alive."

"We weren't sure if we would ever be able to get out of there or ever see our loved ones. The day we were released, we were taken to the RD office and given biryani. That's the first time we tasted biriyani. They told us that all our debts have been extinguished."

"Now, we live in a community built exclusively for released bonded labourers. There are about 100 houses in Thiruvanamalai. Here, we have jobs like charcoal making, cow farm, petrol bunk, etc. We were bonded there, but now we own our own businesses. We are so much happier here. Even our children get to go to school."

Muniappan P, who was taken away from his village when he was just about 13 years old. Muniappan used to live with his grandmother and go to school in Thiruvanamalai. But his parents were bonded labourers in a tree cutting unit. One day, he received news that his father had suddenly died while at work. The cause of death was not revealed. It was summer vacation time and the owner of the tree cutting unit sent a middleman to get him.

They told him he could help his handicapped mother out by spending the vacation there and helping with work. Although he was hesitant, he went because his mother pushed him to accept the offer as there was no other way for her to pay off my father's debts. The job required him to move from place to place. He worked for close to three months and his school was about to reopen. He was excited and mentioned it to the owner. That's when he realised he was trapped. The owner told him he would not let him go. He said he would have to pay off the debts first.

Muniappan says, "Both my mother and I didn't know how much advance my father had taken. We just kept working. I worked for about six years. We got about 300 rs per month. The owner used to give us rice infested with worms. We would clean it up and eat. If I asked him how much of the debt was left, he would beat me up. Meanwhile, my mother got me married to a relative who lived nearby. After the wedding, the owner told my wife that she would also have to work for him. My in-laws came to visit once. The owner asked who they were. Then, he told us that they would not be allowed to visit us unless they also work there. So they left."

"When my wife was six months pregnant with our first child, we asked him if we could go to the hospital. He said you are all Irulas, your women deliver at home, why do you need to go to the hospital all of a sudden. I was shocked. A few months later, my mother in law died. She had wanted to see her daughter till the day before she died, but when my wife approached the owner, he asked her sarcastically, 'can the dead pay off your debts?' Anyway, he let us go on the condition that we leave my mother behind. So we did."

"When we returned, out of the three families that were with us, one couple had tried to escape. But the owner caught him, brought him back, tied him to a tree and beat him up so badly to set an example for us. There was someone outside our shelter to keep a watch on us all the time, so that they could alert the owner in case we tried to escape."

"Finally, one day, our freedom came when, out of the blue, the RDO came to the site, rescued us and brought us back to Thiruvanamalai. After coming to my hometown, everyone looked at us with suspicion because the owner had told them we complained against him. But gradually they understood we were the victims and started being happy for us. We got all our identification documents like Aadhaar and ration card. We were happy for two years. Then suddenly one day, we were told that there's a case against us by the owner. We were really scared if we'd have to go back to that life. But we spoke to the NGO that was helping us and they told us that we were just called to give a testimony against the owner."

"After that, till today, we haven't had any problems. We are able to send our child to school, meet medical expenses, the children even have a park to play nearby. I feel like I am reborn now. We even have solar power. Our life has literally and metaphorically turned from darkness to light."

Legal provisions

Speaking about the legal provisions that deal with bonded labour, advocate Rajkumar explained, "The predominant act to address this issue is the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1976. This act defines bonded labour and makes the district administration responsible. In Tamil Nadu, it is the Revenue Divisional Officer or collector. They are responsible to identify and rescue bonded labourers under section 10 and 11 of the act."

"Another important part is the definition clause, it deals with the definition of bonded labour, which is usually a debt system. For the purpose of exploitation, if someone is paying an advance, or if there are other obligations like caste, community, or customary obligations, it is bonded labour. When these obligations are there, they will forfeit some rights like the right to receive minimum wage, freedom of employment, right to move freely throughout India or the right to sell goods at market value. If any of these components are violated, it comes under bonded labour."

The maximum punishment is three years for the ones who are exploiting, but there are many IPC offenses that can be considered too. For instance, when there is exploitation, it comes under trafficking, under IPC section 370. So that has at least 10 years imprisonment or even life imprisonment. In cases of physical offense (IPC 323, 326) will cover it and wrongful restrainment will be covered by section 341."

"When the act was promulgated in 1976, immediately, all the debt pending before the owners was extinguished at the stroke of the signature of the President. Now, if someone is giving such an advance, it will be treated as illegal advance and is also punishable under section 17."

"Under this act, two vigilance committees must be formulated by the district administration. One is under the chairmanship of the collector or officers nominated by the collector. The other is the sub divisional committee which comprises the RDO, social workers and bank managers for the rehabilitation process. These people monitor the implementation of the act."

"In 1992, the Supreme Court said payments less than minimum wage amounts to forced labour. If they can get a better wage outside, but they still stay there, it means there is a force, even if there is no gate or wall. There's another judgement which encourages the role of NGOs."


"There are some challenges in the provisions of this act. For instance, when the owners don't pay the advance upfront. There is a promise of advance, but it's never given. In such cases, it cannot be covered under the act. In the textile industry, they promise that if you work for a certain period, a lump sum will be given at the end.

So, parents of young people who have dropped out of school in areas like Dindigul, Coimbatore and Tirupur, the textile belt, think it is a good option to save up for their marriage. But once they start working, they are exploited. They work for 12-18 hours a day with no additional wages. This cannot be covered under the bonded labour system abolition act because the advance is only promised, it's not given."

"Another challenge is the rehabilitation process. The scheme provided by the central government was initially Rs 1000 for the initial amount and Rs 20,000 for the final amount. Now they have increased it considerably to Rs 1 lakh for an adult male and Rs 2 lakh for an adult female. The initial amount that is provided on the day of release is also increased to Rs 30,000. However, the problem is that the remaining amount is only paid after proof of bondage. This is usually debated in parliament, in the TN assembly. And as you know, criminal trials can take several years, so when will these people be rehabilitated? It should not be like this because many SC judgements say that if an offence has been committed, if the prosecution takes time to prove the offence, why must the victim suffer. That aspect needs to be addressed.”

Photograph credit: Joshua Joel Prakash