Bonded labour persists, admits govt
From D Ravi Kanth
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu on Thursday admitted at the ongoing 89th International Labour Congress here that the scourge of "bonded labour" or "forced labour" continues to plague them despite sustained attempts to eradicate what they confessed is the worst form of human exploitation, a candid admission that drew immediate promises of support from western donors.
Mr S L Gangadharappa, the top official of the Karnataka governmentís Rural Development and Panchayath Raj Department, conceded that "bonded labour continues to survive in Karnataka in India due to a combination of social and economic factors," seeking support of the International Labour Organization to fund a pilot project in a backward district of Karnataka.
He said the problem of bonded labour is present all over the world including the United States and some countries in Europe, a comment that drew a sharp response from the US labour official who challenged the Karnataka official to prove it.
"I said Iím told that forced labour is there in the United States and Business Week in one of its stories in April said the problem is there in North America," Mr Gangadharappa replied.
Though the official accounts of the incidence of bonded labour in India donít quite reveal the magnitude of the problem, independent surveys by some Western non-governmental organizations place the total number of people mired in different forms of bonded labour, which is treated as forced labour under international labour conventions, at tens of millions.
Andhra Pradesh has the highest incidence of bonded labourers among the four southern states, with the Telengana region being the worst affected by this feudal system of production that is continuing to co-exist with the 21st centuryís information technology-driven production system, a western non-government representative said. " In fact, it is the bonded labour that is fueling the Maoist movement in the state as successive governments had failed to eradicate this problem over the last 55 years," he added.
A Tamil Nadu official conceded that poverty and debt have contributed to the continued presence of bonded labour in the state.
Karnataka informed the ILO that it is considering passing a radical legislation that would hold the officials at the district and village level responsible if bonded labour is identified in their respective areas, and also impose criminal liability on them for not tackling the problem. Basing on Government of Indiaís statistics on bonded labourers carried in 1993, Karnataka said it had around 63,000 bonded labourers.
An ILO official privately said the total number of bonded laborers would be much higher in Karnataka at this juncture.
The Karnataka official said that "a holistic and integrated plan of action " would be drawn up to raise the level of people living below extreme poverty so that the bonded labour problem could be prevented.