Over at our blog about our work in South Asia, I wrote about a recent case that our office handled and what it shows about migrant and trafficked labour in South Asia:
This week, our office was engaged in a rescue of eleven boys from Jharkhand who had been working selling snacks — pani puri — in Coles Park, a park in a relatively affluent neighborhood in Bangalore.
The exploitation that these children tells a broader story about an emerging pattern here:
This case is interesting because it illustrates that forced labour is not just a phenomenon of rural areas, which is often the image that many people in South Asia have. They imagine a caste-based agricultural system in which there is a paternalistic exploitation.
And while this certainly exists across South Asia, there is an urban story that is quite real, as this and other cases illustrate. With crushing poverty in rural areas — in places like Jharkhand or Odisha — people take whatever opportunity is available, even if the opportunity is an illusion and turns into a nightmare. Often that means migration to another more affluent and more booming part of the country, often the South or a city. In those places, they lose contact with family and may be isolated by language and other differences, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
Bonded labour may have been abolished in India in 1976, but the practice not only continues, experience of grass-roots workers suggests it is becoming more widespread. We might be experiencing a relative decline in the incidence of hereditary bondage, but India’s rapidly evolving economic structure and inadequate livelihood security for the most vulnerable sections of society are giving rise to newer and more complex forms of bonded labour. These may not necessarily be lifelong encumbrances, may even be voluntary at times, but are instances of bondage, nonetheless.
Migration, driven by uneven growth in different parts of the country, is one of the most important drivers of present-day bondage. Slow economic growth and a rapidly growing population mean that there are few jobs available for the burgeoning workforce in the poorer states. Take Punjab and Bihar, for example. While the ratio between relative incomes in the two states has worsened from 1.7 in 1965 to approximately four at present, the population of Bihar has grown much more rapidly. Between 2001-11, while the population of Punjab grew by roughly 14 per cent, that of Bihar grew by 25 per cent, and on a much larger base. These conditions lead to large-scale migration from states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and so on towards states such as Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. While the advent of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) might have helped slow the flow of labour, large- scale migration of farm labour during the cropping season is still a reality across India.