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Bonded Labor in India’s Brick Kiln Industry: A Tale of Betrayal and Exploitation

Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer, and an enslaved person, famously said, “Debt is the slavery of the free.” Does this mean that slavery comes as a predicament of modern free society? Facts give us an accurate picture. Debt bondage is highly prevalent in India’s brick kiln industry. Many researchers and human rights activists have referred to it as a contemporary or modern form of slavery. 


Slavery was abolished in India in 1843 under the Indian Slavery Act. Almost 200 years later, it continues to significantly threaten India’s social, cultural, and economic development. What is even more severe is that it threatens the fundamental rights of a considerable section of society. 


Based on the survey data of the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation), AntiSlavery International estimated that there are about 100,000 brick kilns across India.  These brick kilns employ nearly 23 million workers. The situation seems even more appalling when one looks at the global data for slavery. According to the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Report on modern slavery 2022, approximately 49.6 million people live in modern slavery. Moreover, roughly a quarter of them is children.  


What does this indicate? It means that almost half of the world’s modern slaves live in India, the largest democracy in the world. Ironically, India has long been at the forefront of global initiatives that uphold human rights. Yet, it would not be too far-fetched to say that it has miserably failed a specific section of its own country.  


Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the Indian Government has taken specific stringent steps to abolish slavery of all kinds. For instance, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 has made all kinds of debt bondage, including children's, illegal. Additionally, under the IPC (Indian Penal Code), wrongful confinement, buying or selling people as enslaved people and unlawful compulsory labor have been rinsed as criminal offenses punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment and a heavy fine. 


Unfortunately, despite various provisions in the law, the number of bondage workers is on the rise. The main problem lies in the execution of the law. Poor implementation and enforceability have made it difficult to bring about significant positive changes.  


What drives people to forsake their Right to Life, Right to Equality, and Right to Individual Dignity? Indeed, nobody would compromise their fundamental rights under normal circumstances. It is, thus, pertinent to understand what pushes them to this morbid fascination. 


Most brick kiln laborers are recruited from the remote villages of Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. It is often observed that in such towns, there is a near absence of sustainable employment opportunities. A large number of people are only seasonally employed in the agricultural sector. However, after the busy season of farming operations, finding a job for the remaining part of the year can be a considerable challenge.  


Therefore, most people lured into the brick industry are given false hope of a high wage or salary. Additionally, they are encouraged to bring their families along, which provides them with a sense of social and economic security. 


Moreover, it is much easier to bring people within the fold of the brick kiln industry if they are already facing an acute economic or health crisis.  


Manoj (name changed), a resident of a village in Jharkhand named Baridih, willingly accepted to work in one of the brick kilns of Barabanki (Uttar Pradesh) because he was told that he could earn several rupees 800 per day. Since his father’s health was deteriorating, he decided to take the offer on the payment of a loan of rupees 7,000 by the Brick kiln owner.  


Within a month of working at the brick kiln, he understood that he had fallen into a vicious trap. He was paid a meager amount of 200 rupees for laying 1000 bricks daily. When he asserted that he wanted to return to his village, the owner asked him to repay the entire loan. He failed to do so. Eight months later, he is still working at the kiln. His father’s health has gotten worse. 


Manoj’s story resonates with so many others who have been held captive illegally in the name of repayment of loans. Women and children are the worst affected. Women are subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence regularly in brick kiln industries. In many instances, they are repeatedly sold and resold by their brick kiln owners to others in return for massive amounts of money. 


Children of bonded laborers lead their lives awaiting a similar fate as their parents. The curse of slavery passes from one generation to another, leaving children particularly vulnerable to the most inhuman forms of exploitation. They are deprived of education and schooling. However, the most heartbreaking issue is malnutrition and starvation. It is fierce to take away from children their childhood. Their days are spent laying bricks, drying them, and disposing of waste products.  


The geographical locations of these kilns are such that it is almost impossible to escape from them. They are usually located on the outskirts of cities, near remote village areas. Additionally, lack of money, transportation, and other means of communication make it more difficult for the laborers to run away. The fear of being caught and facing severe punishments at the hands of the kiln owner and his men further cripples them. 


The physical, emotional, psychological, and financial damage caused to the bonded laborers is intractable. It needs to be reiterated that government schemes and laws have failed to act as a deterrent to the owners of the brick kilns. Geographical exclusivity worsens their turmoil.  


However, what we often fail to recognize is that the exploitation of bonded laborers anywhere in the world cannot be abolished just through administrative measures and procedures. The social responsibility of assimilating them into mainstream society lies mainly in our hands, in the hands of ordinary people.  


Most people trapped within the cycle of bonded labor and debt bondage in India belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Social exclusion and stigma often cause hindrances in finding suitable jobs and sources of employment. Social and economic vulnerability also render education, proper healthcare facilities, and a decent living standard inaccessible to them. Almost all bonded laborers are illiterate.  


Therefore, social sensitization is significant and fundamental in bringing about any constructive change in the conditions of the bonded laborers. Conducting caste sensitization campaigns in rural areas, especially remote ones, can immensely help.  


Encouraging the growth of cottage industries and building good communication networks between the villages and urban markets can be another way of addressing the problem of social exclusivity.  


Awareness programs educating people about how industrial outlets and establishments can often exploit their employees and the various laws at their disposal in case they are subjected to such exploitation can prove a significant step. Regular collaborations with NGOs and Non-Profit Organisations to conduct surveys and prepare reports can shed light on the misery of the bonded laborers. Most importantly, providing education to people who live in far-flung, remote villages can be the noblest step, for it will equip them to fight for themselves, which is the highest form of service towards anyone.   



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Tags: #slavery #debt bondage #bonded labor #brick kiln


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