AN OVERVIEW OF JEEVIKA / VIMUKTI
Thrust of Vimukti
“Not taking the necessary steps for the purpose of wiping out this blot [bonded labour] on the fair name of the State is a breach of the constitutional obligation.” Supreme Court, AIR 1984 SC 802
Vimukti emerged to respond to the situation of bonded labour in Karnataka. It had a clear perspective of understanding bonded labour in association with the caste system. The approach was mainly based on conscientization (awareness raising) and organisation, i.e., building the agency of the bonded labourers as also the other closely vulnerable group, the agricultural workers, and women in their families, and dalit and moolnivasi communities. Another important aspect of the approach was to address the issue of bonded labour systemically, i.e., addressing the issue, through lobbying and advocacy, at the highest levels of decision and policy making in society, like central and state governments, national and state human rights commissions, and various social and political organisations. The third main element of the approach was to base action on scientifically gathered data on bonded labour, i.e., adopting some elements of participatory action research. Also a right based approach is very fundamental to Vimukti’s work. With these perspectives and approaches, various programmes and activities have been carried out in one taluk, Anekal, since 1990 and all over Karnataka since 1993 and in another two neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu since 2013. A vision statement was collectively formulated in 2005.
Organisations supported by Vimukti: Before Vimukti was formed, JEEVIKA was initiated in 1990 as a movement in a taluk and extended to the entire state in 1993 and to the two neighbouring states in 2013. It remains still a movement. Vimukti, a separate public charitable trust, was registered in 1996 to support the movement legally and financially. To build the agency of bonded labourers, a union of bonded labourers was promoted by JEEVIKA in 1990. Later agricultural workers were also organised along with bonded labourers. The women in the families of bonded labourers and agricultural workers were separately organised into savings and credit self-help groups (SHGs) but were considered part of the union. The union was registered in 1997 as Karnataka Jeetadalu mattu Krashi Karmikara Okkuta, in short, Okkuta. Okkuta has been assiduously built up since then.
All the activists involved in the programme are selected and continuously trained only from the dalit and moolnivasi communities.The main leaders in Okkuta are former bonded labourers. These decisions had been taken keeping in mind the nature of bonded labour system in India and its close links to the caste system. Thus the beneficiaries of the programme and the leaders and activists in the programme are from the most marginalised sections of population in villages.
Context: The Nature and Incidence of Bonded Labour
Bonded labour is a way of exploiting labour of very poor persons, chief among them being dalits and moolnivasis, by making use of their very vulnerable condition. Bonded Labour system is that form of labour arrangement wherein, people are made to work for long hours and for very little or no wages without the freedom to seek any other employment till they clear their debt. They have to work for long hours. They must be available for work, day in and day out. They have neither weekly nor annual holidays. Often the bondages are passed on to the next generation.
Bonded labour is linked to caste system. It emerged out of the caste system. In the typical caste system, all dalits were slaves. They rendered free labour to the dominant castes and did all menial works of the villages. The moolnivasi communities in links with caste groups also rendered similar services. No doubt, the dominant castes to whom they were attached ‘looked after’ them in a relationship of ‘patron and client’ typical to the ‘jajmani’ system. With the economic policies set in by the British, mainly the ‘Land Settlement’, economic transactions in cash, wage labour and large scale works of laying railway lines, mines, estates, caste bound labour tied to villages was loosened and transported to different parts of the country and overseas. The labour of dalits and moolnivasis remaining in the villages also began to be secured through cash advances giving rise to the practice of debt bondage. Some among other caste groups, mainly the backward communities, also started becoming a prey to debt bondages. Thus a majority of bonded labour even today, say 85 to 95%, belongs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Bonded labour in agriculture still has some remnants of the traditional form involving patron and client relationships. Most of it is now reduced to economic transactions, thus being vulnerable to worst forms of exploitation from within the feudal system and also within the capitalist system.
Besides agriculture, bonded labour is increasingly found in occupations in the unorganised sector like brick kilns, stone quarries, hotels, garages, carpet making, silk industry, textile industry, match and fireworks, domestic work and so on. One of the features of globalisation in India since the 1990s is the large scale migration of unorganised labour from the less developed to the more developed states or from the less developed to the more developed regions in a state. Some of these also would be a prey to debt bondage.
There are no definite figures available on bonded labour in India or in Karnataka. According to all indications, there seems to be a rise in all forms of bonded labour rather than a reduction in it. ILO estimated around 1.2 crore bonded labourers in India in 2012. Global Slavery Index of 2014 puts that number at about 1.4 crores, i.e., about 1% of the total population. India Exclusion Report, 2013-14, refers to an estimate of 10% of the entire workforce being bonded labour. The Karnataka Government Action Plan on Bonded Labour 2008 refers to an NSS study claiming 6% of agricultural labour to be in bondage. According to that estimate, from the 2001 census figures, Karnataka with a total population of 52,850,562 and the total number of workers among them as 23,534,791 (44.5% of total population) and the agricultural labourers as 6,226,942 (26.5% of total workers), the 6% among them would be 3,73,617 as bonded labourers! If bonded labour in other categories of work is included, then the total number of bonded labourers in Karnataka could be around five lakhs. If we take into account the estimates of Global Slavery Index and India Exclusion Report, at 1% of the total population, the present total bonded labourers in Karnataka could be around six lakhs!
Aspects of Right Based Approach of Vimukti
The Constitution of India prohibits under Article 23, as a Fundamental Right, traffic in human beings, begar and other forms of forced labour and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, effective since 25 October 1975, contains a number of radical provisions for the elimination of bonded labour. The fundamental right of a person is violated when she is made to work as a bonded labourer. The law stipulates punishment of the offender and rehabilitation of the victim in such a way that the person does not relapse into further bondage.
Vimukti, Jeevika and Okkuta, together with securing constitutional and statutory rights of bonded labourers addressalso other rights that have a direct bearing on bonded labourers. They are rights to minimum and equal wages, work under MGNREGA, food, drinking water, housing, education, health, land, information, right against atrocities and right to be elected to panchayat raj institutions.
The Structure and Geographic Spread of the Activities
All the activities are carried out in teams of seven to eight activists in a taluk. At present, there are 40 such teams in 17 taluks and 23 Districts and sub divisions: 17 taluks - Anekal (Bangalore Urban), Hoskote (Bangalore Rural), Bangarpet (Kolar), Chintamani, Shidlaghatta, Bagepally, Gudibande, Gauribidanur, Chikkballapur (Chikkaballapur), Madhugiri, Pavagada (Tumkur), Magadi, Channapatna (Ramnagar), Maddur (Mandya), HD Kote (Mysore), Bailhongal (Belgavi), Yadgiri (Yadgiri), 23 districts and sub divisions - Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, Koppal, Bellary, Bijapur, Bagalkote, Chikkodi, Gadag, Dharwad, Haveri, Sirsi-Haliyal sdn, Davanagere, Chitradurga, Shivamogga, Chikkamagalur, Hassan, Chamarajnagar, [Kodagu], Hunsur sdn, Pandavapura sdn, Ananthpur (AP) and Krishnagiri (TN). There is a need to promote another 7 similar teams in the three remaining neighbouring states and another four subdivisions in Karnataka. These are guided and monitored by a core group of 10 persons and supported by a central office staff of seven including two part time legal advisors. There is an urgent need to build up teams of researchers, trainers and social media and fund raising professionals.
Infrastructure at Vimukti
At Nagarabhavi village, Bangalore, there is a central office and training cum development centre with a 1000 sq. ft. along with two classrooms, a kitchen and a couple of rooms for them to stay overnight. This centre needs to be further developed to carry out many trainings, services and activities for field personnel and union and SHG leaders.
At present there are hired offices in twenty taluk towns and district cities.
A centre for child labourers is being built up with support from donors in HD Kote on a plot of ¾ acres donated by a philanthropist, where residential bridge courses and vocational courses will be carried out. Vimukti has initiated a process to be affiliated to any educational board to conduct new and ongoing literacy programmes.
Similar centres are being visualised to be set up at Chikballapur, Gudibande, Gauribidanur Madhugiri Pavagada, Maddur and Magadi. Around these centres there is a plan to build up cooperatives of production and marketing for securing self sustaining incomes to members of Okkuta.
A Typical Work Schedule in the Field
Typically, a team in a taluk or a district regularly identifies bonded labourers in that area. In the older 17 taluks, the entire taluk is investigated after the Ugadi festival in April-May. The identified bonded labourers are enabled to file applications for their release and rehabilitation to the Deputy Commissioner or the Assistant Commissioner. The following months are spent in contacting the officials to make them ascertain the applications; and if bonded labourers are determined, then issue release certificates and work out rehabilitation grants to them.
Simultaneously, the identified labourers are brought together in village level union samitis (VUSs). Other agricultural labourers are also made to join them. Once the bonded labours are freed, they will have to earn their livelihood as wage labourers even when they come to possess some assets for self employment. Also, the chances are that the assetless among the dalits and moolnivasis and those who depend only on their daily wage labour, will get into bondages when there is some pressing need for extra expenses in their families. Most of the bonded labours in agriculture are men and boys. Hence, women from among the bonded labourers and daily wage workers are also made to form self help groups (SHGs) in their localities.
The Village Union Samitis and SHGs are enabled to meet every week, discuss their issues and address their problems. The activists help them to secure their various rights and entitlements under various poverty alleviation schemes. Typical among them are house grants, house sites, toilets, other housing accessories; ration cards; various certificates like caste and income; monthly pensions, chief among them being old age, widow and disability; grants like maternity, girl child; work under MGNREGA; various loans, subsidies and trainings for self-employment; scholarships and other facilities for students; health amenities; land; and community facilities like drinking water, community halls, drainages, street lights, village roads, grave yards, anganwadi centres and so on.
A new programme has been developed with the acronym of JaHoSa [Jagrati Horata Sanghatane – awareness raising, agitation for rights, organisation building] to make people in villages identify their problems and raise them in front of important officials in a taluk, who are persuaded to be present in the village at that time. The officials are compelled to address the issues and a committee of nine village representatives is selected to follow up on the promises made. JaHoSa is planned to be carried out once a month in a taluk.
Each taluk or district team is trained to perform street theatre on themes of bonded labour, child labour, gender justice, superstition, unity and issues of health and environment. They are also trained to perform role plays on panchayat raj institutions, their structure and functions and on faulty and correct methods of identification of bonded labourers. Street theatre performances are given in two villages in a taluk in a month. Playback Theatre performances are also organised to build the VUSs and SHGs. State level dalit cultural festivals to promote tamate are organised yearly.
Public awareness on bonded labour is raised on some specific dates connected with bonded labour. They are: Bonded Labour Day on January 26, the day our Constitution with a provision prohibiting Forced Labour was adopted; Labour Day on May 1; Child Labour Day on June 12; Bonded Labour System Awareness Day on October 25, the day from which the Bonded Labour Act is taken to be in force; International Forced Labour Day on December 2. Some other annual days are observed during which reflections on bonded labour are also made. They are: International Women’s Day on March 8; Dignity Day on April 14; Jeevika Day on September 16; Minchu – State Level Dalit Cultural Festival Day on December 13.
Apart from these regular occasions, as and when incidents of bonded labour demand, agitations and rallies are held at the levels of gram panchayat, taluk, district or state.
The activists, union and SHG leaders are encouraged to be active members in SDMCs [School Development and Monitoring Committees] and VHSCs [Village Health and Sanitation Committees] at the level of villages. They try to see that education and health facilities are properly carried out.
The leaders of the Union and SHGs are encouraged to contest elections to gram panchayats and when elected see that the PRIs function properly. All the elected SC and ST members of GPs are regularly given training on the structure and function of the PRIs and are empowered to see that 24.1% of funds to be allocated for SCs and STs under every scheme are used properly.
State level conventions of the union are organised once in three years wherein state level elections to the union are also held.
The activists are given regular trainings on social analysis, leadership, street theatre, playback theatre and child rights. The taluk and district team leaders regularly meet for three days in a month during which ongoing trainings on various topics are incorporated.
Some impact of the Activities
Nearly 35,000 bonded labourers have been identified since 1993 till date. Of them, nearly 5000 have been freed and rehabilitated through the government machinery. Most of the others have come out of bondage through the efforts of Okkuta. 1430 bonded and other working children have gone through the four residential year long bridge courses from 1997 till 2010. Of them, 780 have been mainstreamed in Government schools and hostels. In the 17 taluks where Jeevika has been active since 1990/1993, the incidence of bonded labour has gone down very much. Karnataka Government adopted an Action Plan on Bonded Labour in 2007 and printed it both in English and Kannada in large numbers and circulated them widely. It was drawn up by the Coordinator of Jeevika on the invitation of the Government. Jeevika was instrumental in drawing up and proposing on 11 February 2014 a new set of Rules under the Bonded Labour Act for its effective implementation to the NHRC (National Human rights Commission) and the central MoLE (Ministry of Labour and employment).
As a result of its continuous representations on bonded labour, the Minister, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR), in charge of bonded labour in the state, set up a State Level Committee to investigate and make recommendations on bonded labour on 27 June 2014. The Committee gave a set of 22 Recommendations to the Government in July 2015. The Minister accepted them and made them public on 24 September 2015 and asked the officials to work out a Plan of Action to implement the Recommendations. Follow up on this is being done by JEEVIKA.
On February 16, 2017, JEEVIKA organised a state level public rally in Bengaluru gathering a little over 7,000 former bonded labourers, the members of the Union and the SHGs. To their great surprise and as a mark of their success in lobbying, the RDPR minister came in person to hear the grievance of the agitators and responded by giving a number of significant assurances. They were as follows: 1. He would rehabilitate all the 3119 freed bonded labourers by May 13, 2017; 2. He would direct all the Deputy Commissioners to speedily submit reports on the actions taken regarding the 13,000 or so applications of the bonded labourers; 3. He would constitute an ongoing Commission on Bonded Labour with 8 members, in which 3 will be representatives of JEEVIKA, 2 experts on Bonded Labour, 2 Government Officials and one a representative of the Government; 4. Take a delegation of Jeevika to meet the CM in the next 20 days; 5. Direct the Social Welfare Minister to distribute lands to the SC / ST freed bonded labourers under the Land Scheme of the Ambedkar Development Corporation; 6. Grant houses speedily to every freed bonded labourer.
Over hundred activists were involved in sensitising state government officials at all levels of administration from the state, to the district, to taluk and the gram panchayat levels in 2000-2001 and since 2012 till now.
A large number of bonded labourers have been given release certificates through the efforts of JEEVIKA. 2070 have been freed before 2070 and 3171 since 2011. Throught he efforts of the Union around 25,000 have come out of their bondage. In HD Kote taluk 448 bonded labourers have been freed from 2012 to 2016. In Mysore district another 36 bonded labourers were freed. In Tumkur district, in Pavgada taluk, 386 bonded labourers were freed on 14 August 2012, in Madhugiri taluk 916 on 15 August 2012. In Chikballapur district, in all the six taluks, 338 bonded labourers were freed in 2010-11 and in four taluks, 927 in 2013. In Belagavi district 13 bonded labourers were freed in 2015 and another 20 were freed in 2016. In Gadg district, 11 have been freed in 2015. In Udupi district, 8 were freed in 2015. In Raichur district, one was freed in 2015. Some of them have received full or partial rehabilitation grants from the government. Meaningful rehabilitation programmes have to be worked out for all of them. 12,997bonded labourers have been identified since 2010 and are made to apply to the administration for their release and rehabilitation.
Apart from various rehabilitation grants procured, various benefits have been provided to the members of the Okkuta and the SHGs. Thousands of trainings to union leaders, SHG leaders, GP members and cultural programmes and playback theatre performances were given. Hundreds of struggles were launched to secure rights of bonded labours, women, children and dalits on minimum and equal wages, land, drinking water, work under MGNREGA, ration cards and public distribution system. Millions of rupees worth of grants from Government were secured for building houses, for various self employment trainings and facilities like loans, lands, irrigational borewells, equipments, raw materials, plants, seeds, cattle and sheep; for community facilities like street lights, drinking water, toilets, drainage, roads, community centres, children’s centres and schools; and in terms of old age, widow and disability pensions, medical and educational facilities and common marriages.
Though the incidence of bonded labour has come down very much through the efforts of VT / Jeevika /Okkuta from 1993 to date, it is still a very widely prevalent phenomenon in all the areas. Continuous efforts are still needed to rehabilitate the former bonded labour families as also to prevent persons getting into fresh bondage or relapsing into further bondage. The livelihood opportunities of very poor families among the dalits and moolnivasis and backward class communities must be assiduously enhanced. Literacy levels of these people must be increased. The children among these families must be supported in their education. The drop outs must be given trainings in vocational skills.
“We fail to see why the administration should feel shy in admitting the existence of bonded labour because it is not the existence of bonded labour that is a slur on the administration but its failure to take note of it and to take all necessary steps for the purpose of putting an end to the bonded labour system by quickly identifying, releasing and permanently rehabilitating bonded labourers. What is needed are determination, dynamism and a sense of social commitment on the part of the administration to free bonded labourers and rehabilitate them and wipe out this ugly inhuman practice which is a blot on our national life.” Supreme Court, AIR 1984 SC 802, para 2