The death of an eight-year-old boy whose parents worked as bonded labourers has triggered demands for authorities to crack down on thousands of other suspected cases in nearby villages in central India.
Debt bondage is India’s most common form of slavery despite being outlawed 40 years ago. Still, millions of bonded labourers work in fields, brick kilns and rice mills to clear their loans.
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Police said the boy’s parents, who had been working on their employer’s farm without pay for five years to repay a 25,000 rupee ($339) loan, lived in a “polythene hut” and were assaulted when they asked for money to take their sick child to a doctor.
“The father had come to register a case against the employer for physical assault, but when we investigated we found it was a case of bonded labour,” said Yogendra Singh Jadon, station house officer in Guna, where the case was registered.
“When we visited his village, we found the other children were also unwell and took them to the hospital. The family was in a bad shape … it was heartrending to see how they lived.”
The boy died on Sunday and the couple’s three other children are being treated in hospital for malaria, local labour officials said.
In one of the countries worst-hit by COVID-19, the pandemic has also wiped out jobs and eroded the savings of day-wage workers, raising fears more people will be forced to take loans and be driven into bonded labour to make ends meet. More than 90,000 people have died of the virus and the number of infections in the country is expected to pass six million in the coming days.
India identified more than 135,000 bonded workers in its last census in 2011, but activists said the numbers are much higher. The South Asian nation has also promised to rescue and rehabilitate more than 10 million workers aged five to14 by 2030.
Indian labour laws ban the employment of anyone under the age of 15 but children are permitted to support family businesses outside of school hours. This provision is widely exploited by employers and human traffickers, child rights campaigners say.
In the Guna case, the employer, his father and wife were arrested this week on charges of bonded labour and crimes against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, terms used to describe some of India’s most marginalised communities.
Labour officials said they were still investigating how many families were in debt in the same village.
Workers’ rights groups urged authorities to carry out an extensive survey to identify other debt bondage victims in Madhya Pradesh state, where Guna lies.
“There are thousands of bonded workers in Guna and the government should conduct a survey,” said Nirmal Gorana, general secretary of non-profit Bandhua Mukti Morcha (or Bonded Labour Liberation Front).
Gorana said a case of 450 workers rescued from bondage in Guna and three public interest litigations they have filed against bonded labour in the region are pending in local courts.