Report

Modi’s Farm Bills and Their Repeal Will Do Nothing for This Group

Bonded laborers, many of whom belong to the Dalit community, are owned by their landlords and work for little or no pay.

By , a Dalit journalist based in India.
India's most marginalized Dalit community members shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi on Aug. 9, 2018.
India's most marginalized Dalit community members shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi on Aug. 9, 2018. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

The year 2021 was a big one for Indian agriculture. After more than a year of countrywide protests against three controversial farm bills designed to overhaul the agricultural sector, thousands of Indian farmers triumphed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the bills last month.

Many farmer unions branded the acts, hurriedly approved by the Indian parliament in September 2020, as anti-farmer, arguing that removing a local market system set up by the government would have left farmers at the whim of corporations. Farmers have also urged the development of a minimum support price law to ensure that corporations do not have too much control.

Despite being hailed by some as a victory for the farming sector, the repeal of these laws will not be felt by most of the agricultural labor force, over 90 percent of whom own only small amounts of land or no land at all.

The year 2021 was a big one for Indian agriculture. After more than a year of countrywide protests against three controversial farm bills designed to overhaul the agricultural sector, thousands of Indian farmers triumphed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the bills last month.

Many farmer unions branded the acts, hurriedly approved by the Indian parliament in September 2020, as anti-farmer, arguing that removing a local market system set up by the government would have left farmers at the whim of corporations. Farmers have also urged the development of a minimum support price law to ensure that corporations do not have too much control.

Despite being hailed by some as a victory for the farming sector, the repeal of these laws will not be felt by most of the agricultural labor force, over 90 percent of whom own only small amounts of land or no land at all.

Some of these agricultural laborers are bonded, which means they are owned by landlords. On paper, bonded laborers are paid a living wage, but this is rarely followed through on. The government of India says there are 300,000 bonded laborers, although some studies in recent decades have estimated the true number is several times higher. These workers are often forced into bondage—even intergenerationally—to pay off meager loans. With no control over their debt, they are tricked into working for little or no pay for almost their whole lives.

“I don’t know how these laws and the protests are going to change my life,” said Fakir, a bonded laborer from Punjab, who does not have a last name. His owner is a landlord who has been in Delhi protesting for the past year. After Fakir’s parents failed to repay the $10 loan they took out prior to his birth, he was sold into bonded labor as a 5-year-old child. Now 25 years old, he has been sold and resold to different owners for nearly two decades.

“I have no land, no home, and no money,” Fakir said. “I only have my owner.”

Fakir belongs to the Dalit community, a group of 200 million people relegated below the 3,000-year-old Indian caste system. Members of higher castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas—maintain control of knowledge, resources, and power while constituting only 30 percent of the population.

Those born into the Dalit community are seen as outcasts, impure and inauspicious in society. Their roles, in such occupations as sanitation, laundry, cremation, and leatherwork, are those considered menial by the so-called higher castes. In villages, their houses are in segregated areas in the outer regions of villages. Dalits are met with violent repercussions for simple acts like touching public water sources, growing a moustache, or mounting a horse.

Although 71 percent of Dalits work in agriculture, they own just 9 percent of total agricultural land. Almost all Dalits who work in the agricultural sector are laborers. Many of them are bonded.

There is a historical context to the landlessness of Dalits. Together with the centuries-old caste and untouchability-based tradition, official regulations in some areas of the country such as the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 restricted and barred Dalits from owning land.

Scant pay has made it nearly impossible for them to break free from this system. When laborers fall ill, any medical expenses are added to their debts. (Some workers’ heads are even shaved as a marker of their bondage—and to identify them if they try to escape.) Dalit women who are bonded laborers aren’t even paid in money, making just over 10 pounds of wheat for 6 months of work, while men are paid around $1 to $2 per day, according to Gagandeep Kaur, general secretary at Volunteers for Social Justice, an organization that fights bonded labor and child labor through a caste lens by organizing rescue operations and policy advocacy.

In October, Volunteers for Social Justice rescued Fakir from bonded labor; he is now living in Kaur’s office. Kaur received a tip from local sources that a family of four had been kept as bonded slaves in a certain farmland. Her group rescued Fakir and his family from a small hut of hay on the farmland where the family had been living.

Volunteers for Social Justice has identified and released over 30,000 bonded laborers like Fakir, including child bonded laborers, in Punjab and other northern Indian states since its inception in 1985. The group has filed a case against Fakir’s owner and are at present waiting for legal action to proceed. The landlord is one of the protesters in the farmers’ agitation.

Since most Dalits do not own land—and their primary struggle is to gain access to it—they were left out of the protests. “Why should Dalit farm organizations extend their support to an agitation that does not affect them?” Kaur asked.

Moreover, activists say the farmers spearheading the protests are often the same people keeping Dalits in bondage. “The protest against these three farm laws is very Jat-dominated,” said Mukesh Malaudh, the president of Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, an organization that strives to get land for marginalized communities. (Jat is a dominant-caste group that is known for its large landholdings.) “Many Jats own bonded laborers and are direct oppressors of Dalits, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, so it is obvious to not see many Dalit farm organizations participating in the protests.”

This did not stop landowners from trying to coerce the Dalits’ support. Arjun, a former bonded laborer and a Dalit land rights activist in Punjab who asked to use a pseudonym, told Foreign Policy that the upper castes insisted that each household in his community send one family member to join the protests—or face fines and social and economic isolation.

“For Dalits, both the [ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] and the landowning upper-caste farmers are the oppressors,” Arjun said. “They have kept us as slaves in their farms, and now they are asking us to support them.”

Landowners can buy agricultural bonded laborers at Nimani Ekadashi, a festival in Punjab every June. The festival is ostensibly to trade commodities, but bonded laborers are also traded there. According to Kaur, a laborer can be purchased for anything between $400 and to $1,500 for one year. “They traded me like an object to different owners on every Nimani Ekadashi,” Arjun said.

Conditions inside Nimani Ekadashi are grim. “I have seen the laborers being held in chains when our team went to rescue them,” said Kaur, who compared the system to slavery. “In many cases, laborers are kept in cages.”

Bonded labor is officially outlawed by the 1976 Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, which terminated the practice. In reality, the act is not enforced except if a social organization intervenes. Most bonded laborers are uneducated and are not aware of the illegality of the bonded labor system. Only with the intervention of social labor organizations do bonded laborers usually take action. Arjun was one such bonded laborer, and he still gets death threats from his previous owner to coerce him to abdicate the case.

Government attempts to redistribute land more equitably have also failed. In order to promote more equal land distribution among different castes, in 1961 New Delhi established the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act, which reserved 33 percent of agricultural village common land for Dalits. But with the act’s poor implementation, it is still the upper castes who retain overwhelming control of farmland and who tend to win annual leases at auction.

“These reserved farmlands are still cultivated by the upper castes,” Malaudh, the land activist, said. “They just pay off proxy candidates from the reserved community and deprive Dalits of their rights.”

Days after Modi’s announcement that he planned to scrap the contentious pieces of legislation, the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, a united council of farmer unions that drove the protests, wrote to Modi with a list of demands, including a legal guarantee that the government will acquire crops at a minimum price even if the market prices fluctuate.

There are other demands, too, but none touch on the issues of agricultural laborers, land distribution, or abolition of the bonded labor system. Until they do, more than 200,000 Dalits must continue waiting to be rescued from this life. Many live and die repaying debts that they did not directly borrow while toiling on lands that can never belong to them.

Suprakash Majumdar is a Dalit journalist based in India. He writes on social justice issues from a caste lens. Twitter: @SuprakashJourno

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