Changing Rights into Policies and Policies into Instrumental Processes

An Experience of Jeevika - Karnataka Government Action Plan on Bonded Labour 2008

Saturday 25 September 2010 by JEEVIKA Kiran Kamal Prasad

I. Actions and methods implemented by Jeevika to have rights included into public policies: 1. Introduction: 1.1 Nature of Bonded Labour in India as Intimately Related to Caste System: Abolition of Bonded Labour is, in India, both an economic right as well as a social right in that bonded labour in India combines economic and social factors. It is economic because the victims of bonded labour system are the abject poor in Indian society. It is social because a vast majority of those victims are from the lowest strata of the highly inegalitarian social system, i.e., caste system, prevailing in India; that lowest strata being dalits (untouchables/scheduled castes) and adivasis (indigenous people/scheduled tribes). Again, it is economic because it is concerned with labour relations; it is social because those labour relations are embedded in social factors. The current bonded labour system in the Indian subcontinent is the extension in modern times of caste slave labour of the pre-British times.

1.2 Prohibition of Bonded Labour in Independent India: The Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, recognizes prohibition of human trafficking, unpaid labour (begar) and other similar forms of forced labour as a fundamental right. Bonded Labour System Abolition Act was enacted on February 9, 1976, with retrospective effect from October 25, 1975, to give effect to the fundamental right on Prohibition of Unpaid and Forced Labour.

1.3 Three Notes:

1.3.1 Nature of Fundamental Rights in Indian Constitution: The fundamental rights recognized by the Indian Constitution contain not just civil and political rights. A few of the social, economic and cultural rights are also recognized as fundamental rights. Among the social rights, we can mention abolition of untouchability, prohibition of unpaid and forced labour and prohibition of employing children below 14 years in hazardous industries and processes. Prohibition of unpaid and forced labour is also an economic right. An example of a cultural fundamental right is the right to conserve a distinct language, script or culture.

1.3.2 Role of Dr. Ambedkar in Including Some ESC Rights as Fundamental Rights in Indian Constitution: The Indian Constitution is unique in that it contains as fundamental rights not just civil and political rights but also some economic, social and cultural rights. The two economic and social rights of the nature of fundamental rights pertain only and mainly to dalits and adivasis, i.e., prohibition of untouchability and unpaid and forced labour and human trafficking. Prohibition of child labour also should benefit dalits and adivasis to a large extent. The cultural fundamental right pertains to religious, linguistic and cultural minorities. This was possible because of the advocacy mainly of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a great and unparalleled leader from the dalit community, as a member of the Constituent Assembly and also the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution.

1.3.3 Delay in Promulgating Bonded Labour Act: Though prohibition of unpaid and forced labour was enshrined as a fundamental right in the Constitution in 1950, an appropriate statute to regulate the contravention of that provision was enacted only in 1976, i.e., after a lapse of 26 years! This is already a clear pointer to the great lethargy shown by the political leaders and administrators in securing the fundamental right on the prohibition of unpaid and forced labour and giving full support for the implementation of the Act on Bonded Labour, bringing about appropriate policies under the Act and putting in place appropriate institutional processes. It is also an indicator of the extent of vigilance, advocacy and lobbying that are required on the part of non governmental organizations and movements concerned with the issue.

2. Bonded Labour Act and Relevant Policies under it: A few rules for the implementation of the Act were published in the official gazette on 28 February 1976. They came in force on that same day and have been circulated along with the Act. They were slightly modified later in 1978 and 1983. The Central Government further brought out a Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour in 1978. This scheme was partially modified in 1983, 1986, 1995 and 2000. The Supreme Court has periodically come out with quite a few significant judgments that have had great implications on the policies of the government on bonded labour. Apart from these rules, scheme and judgments, no other specific and separate policy formulation has been made either by the Central Government or any State Government for the implementation of the Act for very many years. Any right enshrined in the Constitution or in a statute has to find expression in a policy framework to properly guide the securing of that right and that policy framework has to be translated into proper institutional processes.

2.1 Detailed Policy on Bonded Labour in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka: Among all the states in India, the Government of Tamil Nadu brought out a policy document for the implementation of the Act in that state in 2001 titled, “Abolition of the Bonded Labour System, Handbook for the Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers.” The Government of Karnataka recently came out with a policy document called, “An Action Plan for the Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers in Karnataka 2008, Containing also Brief and yet Comprehensive Explanations and Guidelines on Identification and Release of Bonded Labourers and Prosecution of Offenders.” It was published in October 2009 and distributed widely so as to reach all the officials concerned in the state as also committed social activists.

2.2 Role of JEEVIKA in Bringing out Policy on Bonded Labour in Karnataka: JEEVIKA – Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka (Bonded Labour Liberation Front in Karnataka) has played an important role in bringing about this policy document.

2.3 Introduction to JEEVIKA: 2..3.1 JEEVIKA at a Taluk (Sub-district) Level: Jeevika came into existence in a taluk (sub-district) in 1990 and at the state level in 1993 with the sole aim of eradicating bonded labour in Karnataka. It came into existence in the context of encountering bonded labourers in a village and the knowledge that the state had officially been proclaiming that it had eradicated the evil lock stock and barrel. To tackle this situation, bonded labourers in the entire taluk were identified scientifically in 1988 and 1989 and the resulting data were used to raise questions in the state legislature in 1990 regarding the implementation of the Act. Simultaneously, the bonded labourers were also organized into various mass actions to make the administration implement the Act. Conscientization programmes were also conducted to raise their awareness and strengthen their leadership. A writ petition was field in the High Court for the proper implementation of an order of 1992 for the rehabilitation of 197 bonded labourers. Representations were continuously made at the different levels of administration and also to political leaders.

2.3.2 JEEVIKA at State Level: Similar programmes were carried out at the state level from 1993. But for the initial success when the programmes were launched in a taluk, all the strategies taken up at the state level did not result in any tangible results to the bonded labourers. The field level reports from the administration continued to be negative. But initiating action at the state level had the impact of keeping alive the discourse on bonded labour in the state administration though it refused to give justice to the nearly 20,000 bonded labourers identified by Jeevika.

2.4 Bringing out Action Plan on Bonded Labour by Government of Karnataka: The media exposure of a case involving five chained bonded labourers in 2000 changed the attitude of the administration all of a sudden. That led to the public announcement of a commitment to implement the Act both by the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. At this stage, Jeevika’s expertise was sought to orient, train and capacitate the administration to implement the Act. The coordinator of Jeevika was invited in 2004 by the Government of Karnataka to draw up an Action Plan for the Rehabilitation of bonded labourers. The invitation was promptly accepted and acted upon. The Action Plan was approved in 2007 and published in 2009. Jeevika had to make continuous representations to the officials to see that the Action Plan was approved and published.

II. Results Got So Far:

1. Even after accomplishing this great feat, full and continuous implementation of the Act cannot be taken for granted because bonded labourers are at the utmost margins of our society, rendered powerless, fragmented, dispersed, hence made invisible and also kept illiterate and ignorant, hence made incapable of knowing and asserting their rights as citizens. Establishing sound institutional processes according to the policy document on bonded labour will still require various efforts on the part of our movement. For this reason, Jeevika impressed upon the government to print a large number of the copies of the Action Plan in the state language and distribute them in a meaningful way by organizing sensitization programmes to the various officials at the levels of the state, districts and taluks (sub-districts). [Karnatsks has 30 districts, 52 sub-divisions and 176 taluks.] The Karnataka Government printed 10,000 copies in Kannada and 1,000 in English in September 2009. The distribution of the Action Plan to the government officials did not take place in the manner suggested due to massive floods witnessed in north Karnataka. Jeevika then took upon itself to reach the Action Plan to many dalit leaders and activists in the nooks and corners of the state in December 2009 and January 2010. Now through a network of those activists, it is continuously building pressure on the government from the lowest to the topmost level to take action according to the Action Plan.

2. In one district of Chikkaballapur, 136 bonded labourers have recently been given release certificates. The process to work out effective rehabilitation programmes for them are being planned by the authorities. Another 234 in the same district are in the process of getting their release certificates. Similar processes are going on in another 10 districts. We are awaiting the outcome for about 600 bonded labourers.

3. Dalit volunteers in 18 districts and 7 sub-divisions have recently identified a little over 2000 bonded labourers in different villages in their proximity and are pressurizing the officials to initiate activities according to the Action Plan. The outcome in the coming two or three months will testify to the success or otherwise of putting in place sound institutional processes according to the Action Plan on Bonded Labour.

4. Around the time the dalit leaders were mobilized in the entire state for sensitizing on the Action Plan in December 2009 and January 2010, Jeevika received a very encouraging news that will have fruitful bearings in strengthening its activities on the Action Plan. Free the Slaves from USA called up Jeevika on 19 January 2010 and communicated that it was chosen for the 2010 Harriet Tubman Freedom Award. In March it further shared the information of a handsome grant for two years. Jeevika decided to use the grant from August 2010 to support the activities on pressurizing the implementation of the Action Plan in the entire state.

5. All these new dalit volunteers along with the older Jeevika activists, around 100 of them, were brought together at the state capital in Bangalore on 14 and 15 September as part of its annual Jeevika Day celebrations to deliberate on the course of action to be taken up in making the government implement the Action Plan. A public dialogue was organized on 15 September involving key state and national functionaries of the government and important public figures, like the member in charge of bonded labour in the National Human Rights Commission, the principal secretary to the Karnataka Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department, having the responsibility of monitoring the implementation of the Act on Bonded Labour in the state, and a former Chairman of the Karnataka Permanent Backward Classes Commission and a senior advocate. The interventions of those persons highlighted different issues of bonded labour. The sharings by Jeevika activists made the principal secretary to commit himself to the cause of bonded labour.

III. Difficulties Faced in Bringing out Policy Document on Bonded Labour and in Putting in Place Sound Institutional Processes according to that Document:

1. Frequent Transfer of Top Officials Detrimental to Sustained Interventions for Marginalized: JEEVIKA was invited by a progressive minded top official with an open mind and positive disposition towards NGOs to draft an Action Plan for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers. But before he could promulgate it, he was shifted and the new person took quite some time to approve and publish it. Even after publishing it, another set of officials have taken over who seem to have a different attitude to bonded labour.

2. Caste and Class Bias of Administration: Bonded labour is a problem pertaining to dalits and adivasis in India. But a majority of the officials and judges come from dominant non-dalit castes who are, by and large, also from the rich class. Though prohibition of bonded labour is a fundamental right and a statute is in place to give effect to that right, strong caste prejudices and attitudes and entrenched feudal practices come in the way of meting out justice by non dalit officials and judges to dalits and bonded labourers.

3. Acute Vulnerability of Bonded Labourers: Bonded labourers absolutely have no economic resources to fall back upon to support any movement. Also they are spread out and under the supervision of their masters which makes it very difficult to bring them together for any mass action. They are also illiterate and ignorant of their rights, seeing no wrong in getting into bonded slavery.

4. Cooption of Dalit Leaders and NGOs by Local Power Systems: Support for the eradication of bonded labour in rural areas is very difficult to be obtained from local dalit movements and local NGOs. Most of the local NGOs in Karnataka are under the leadership of non dalit castes. Quite a few of the dalit leaders in the villages also would not like to antagonise the landlords in villages. JEEVIKA is forced to build up a movement of bonded labourers almost all on its own.

IV. Recommendations and Advices to Others Working on Similar Thematics:

1. Any right pertaining to the poor and the marginalized is not easily recognized by the powers that be. It requires continuous pressure from the people affected or on behalf of them. Even when an Act is passed enshrining that right and a policy is formulated to give effect to that Act, continuous vigilance and sustained pressure are required to be brought on the administration to see that sound institutional processes are put in place and are not amenable to the caprices of the current incumbents in adminstration.

2. Though leadership and voluntarism from non affected enlightened people is always welcome in building up a movement of the marginalized, in the context of caste system in India and what caste does to the sensibilities of non dalit people, it is always preferable, by and large, to build up the movement with the leadership of dalits and adivasis.

3. When the local, state and national political leadership and bureaucracy refuses to acknowledge or is very lethargic in acknowledging the rights of the marginalized, it may be very helpful to use the support from international instruments and agencies in actualizing those rights.

Kiran Kamal Prasad, JEEVIKA.

16 September 2010.


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