Silence of the bonded
Debt is the legacy that the child-workers in the rice mills near Chennai inherit from their fathers and hand over to their children. Now an NGO has taken up the task of educating the children of bonded labourers as the first step towards putting an end to the abhorrent practice.
HA, HA, HA... It started in a low hush, somewhat like the tuning exercise on a sitar. But there was nothing musical, or funny, in the scene that unfolded. With a hearty chuckle, the relatively fair-skinned, well-fed figure approached the crowd of workers. Then Silence. Silence that is unnatural in a place where the noise and bustle of a billion-plus people is so pervasive. This Silence has evolved from a thousand years of practice. A thousand years of subjugating; repressing and suppressing. It has been so well-rehearsed that it has become perfectly acceptable in society.
The blazing sun had set, but now the laughter scorched. The subject of ridicule was young Manikandan (or Mani), his ambition outsized for his slender nine-year-old frame. The ridiculer was the 'accountant', who supervises the rice mill. It is supervision that conjures up jackboots and brown-shirts. The accountant's outburst was directed at a conversation we were having with the rice mill workers, of whom Mani is one. I was accompanying Ambarasie, a skilled social worker from a non-governmental organisation involved in child rights, called Jeeva Jyothi. She has rare access to these families and was paying one of her frequent visits to the rice mills where they work, and also live.
It is 7 p.m. and there were barely four hours left for the families to prepare a meal and take a nap before their next shift began. We caught them milling outside their little 'homes'; tiny, dank, damp, and dark 8 x 10 foot closets. No lights, no toilet and no bed.
Ambarasie leapt into her favourite mantra - the need to send their kids to school. The parents know the lecture well, Ambarasie had tenaciously counselled this family, and managed to get young Mani enrolled in school. There was less success with his older sister. To his family and the Canadian visitor, Mani proudly reported on his progress in school.
"After your schooling, what do you want to be?" I asked through Ambarasie's translation. Filled with rare confidence, he replied, "A police officer, of course." You could almost see him standing with pride, taking the oath "to serve and protect". That is, until the accountant, never ever far from earshot, arrived. Choking on his third round of laughter, he uttered, "You, a policeman? Ha! A policeman has to be big. A policeman has to be strong and smart. You won't ever become a policeman." Then Silence. The crushing Silence of authority.
Here in the suburbs of Chennai, the accountant knows what he is talking about. The odds are against Mani and company.
Few leave this area once they arrive. By design, they are not supposed to. The reality is that Mani is headed for a life of hard menial labour in a rice mill. Just like his father. And maybe just because of his father. Because someone will have to pay the debt owed to the rice mill owner.
Mani and his family are bonded labour, as are the 939 families working and living in some 200 rice mills in this area. These families belong to a "low" caste and come from a rural setting, where they had lived as snake catchers and agriculture workers. But change came. Incomprehensible changes that sent their centuries-old existence into a modern-day bungee jump. Changes in world prices of agro products, combined with the phenomenal pressure placed on scarce land and even less water, by an expanding population.
Much of rural India has witnessed wholesale dislocation of families from productive lives in rural towns to lives of the destitute on the outskirts of large Indian cities, or worse, as bonded labour. The government chose to ignore this. So now, faced with the consequences years later, it denies that these situations exist.
FAMILIES often fall into bondage after some critical event, a breaking point, usually a daughter's marriage with a dowry totalling several years' salary. Their financial desperation is matched by the cunning of bonded labour employers. The families' savings evaporate, and standing at the edge of town, candy canes in hand, the 'accountants' offer tidy sums of money (Rs.5,000 to 10,000) to get them through their financial crunch. With it, they receive a ticket to new 'agricultural' work. It is a Faustian pact.
The father promises to repay the loan over time. Repayment, that is, with the labour of his family, including his children. It is too appealing an offer to pass up. So from the rural towns beats a direct, dark passage to the rice mills outside Chennai. And to the silk looms of Kancheepuram, the handlooms of Madurai, the endless firecracker factories, the brick kilns, bidi and cigarette-making factories and carpet-weaving units.
The conditions spell nothing short of slavery. Work as hard as you might, there is nowhere to go. Years of work is not enough to pay back the loans. In a good month, a family of four earns between Rs.2,000 and Rs.3,000, barely enough for two meals a day. The owner takes half the amount as interest on the loan, a handsome return indeed. Yet, with the good months there are some bad ones too. Bad weather, monsoons or sickness leaves the family without work. Families are prohibited from seeking work outside the mill, and any attempt to leave without paying the full debt is met with severe, often violent, punishment. The accountant sees to that. So during the off-months, the owner lends them more money, and the debt pattern is established.
Each 75 kg lot of rice sack that they boil, dry, and pack in a jute bag earns them Rs.7. The accountant sells it for Rs.150. Math, clearly, is not their strong suit. These low caste workers have little if any education, having been pulled out of school to help in their parents' labour.
In one mill, I asked a worker about the math and how much he owed the mill owner. He was clear on the initial loan sum of Rs.10,000, but equally unclear on what he owed the mill owner now, how much he had paid in his 10 years in the mill, and the rate of interest. "I am not sure about the figures," he says, "but I know that soon I will make enough money to pay off the debt, and we will leave this place." Ten years... and counting.
"What was your father's profession?" I inquired. Again that Silence. Surely, I was looking at it. The legacy father left was a debt for repaying. One generation, plus ten years... and counting.
Therein begins the most nefarious part of this play: the role written for children. One million children in Tamil Nadu and 15 million in all of India are bonded labour. Yet they have not chosen to act in this play, a tragedy, which begins when they are young. From age five or six, their labour is extracted in absolute violation of their rights. Then at maturity, the second act. They are handed the debt of their parents. Trapped they stay.
Work takes up 14 to 18 hours a day. Paddy is boiled, then bathed, before being spread to dry like king-size sheets across the cement. A steady temperature of 40§C is not enough to let the drying happen on its own. In fact, the worker's job is to shuffle on foot on the cement, back and forth, overturning the rice repeatedly to make sure it dries uniformly. Large adult bare feet, followed closely by little pairs of bare feet. Shuffling back and forth, under the burning sun, over the hot beach of rice, each day they may cover 20 to 30 km and get some 700 kg of rice ready. Surrounding the mill, tall brick walls keep out suspicious eyes, and keep in any contemplation of the world beyond.
I JOINED Jeeva Jyothi to work on a strategy to help these people. The efforts until now have focussed on sending children aged between six and 10 to school. But the poor progress on this front indicated that making a real impact would require intervening even earlier. By age six there was already serious developmental damage; their little lives spent inside the prison-like perimeter, under the hot sun, had left irreparable scars. Sunburns, acute diarrhoea, skin discoloration and eye defects were prevalent. Ninety per cent of the children suffered from malnourishment.
There was psychological scarring as well, from having had no exposure to the world outside. So they were totally illprepared for formal education. The other students quickly segregated them as outcasts. Imagine the shock for children who did not even know how to hold a pencil in their hand.
We devised a plan to intervene earlier than the age of six in the lives of these kids. Proper nutrition, day-care, and early education were the key. All agreed that education should pave their way out of bondage. Of course, engaging the mill owners, who could be extremely hostile, was critical. It was only through tenacity and diplomacy that Ambarasie slowly gained their cooperation. The owners were understandably concerned about attracting public attention to their employment scheme, so they found it hard to argue with Ambarasie when she requested support for child education initiatives. This kind of conversation also gently reminded them that they were already in utter violation of current child labour laws.
Our ultimate aim, however, is to germinate a generation of educated and empowered children, and in doing so, plant seeds for the eventual dismantling of the entire system. Without champions from 'inside', there will never be change. By raising a crop of healthy, educated kids, and teaching them about their rights, we sow the seeds of change. It is an absurdly long-term plan, but Jeeva Jyothi and the foundations that support it have learned that affecting change requires tempering their indignation with patience.
As we leave the mills, Ambarasie explains Mani's older sister Sathya's despair. While Mani gets accolades, 13-year-old Sathya's enthusiasm for learning is submerged. The parents will simply not accept any time away from work for education for a mere girl. After all, girls become the property of the husband once married. So while she is still theirs, they need to extract her labour.
Equally disturbing was our last encounter, with young Kumar and his parents. As we approached them, Kumar's mother intimidatingly withdrew to nurse her baby. Her taut, lean frame, like that of all the women we saw, supported breasts so small and undernourished that the baby whimpered in frustration.
Kumar, possibly 12, stood dutifully behind his father, letting Papa respond to the inquisitive foreigner. Finally, I directed one question his way. It is the one all Canadian children ponder once they hit five. "Kumar, what do you want to be when you grow up?" The Silence, again.
A Silence so deep, so disturbing, it cascades through your mind, past your senses and directly to your soul. A Silence older than Gandhi, or Ashoka, and maybe even the Buddha. The youngster had no words. Just Silence. He gave a brief look into the distance, and then a slight shrug of the shoulder. No answer. Or maybe again, surely, I was looking at it. The destiny of his caste. Being passed down from generation to generation.
Gadi Meir, a banker from Toronto, is doing a six-month volunteer service in India, led by the American Jewish World Service. Jeeva Jyothi is an India-based non-governmental organisation working at the grassroots to protect and advance the rights of street children and child labourers in Chennai.