Bonded Labour in Karnataka?
Where are “we, the people of India’’?

Bhaskar Majumder

We are the members of the civil society – the respected middle section that is conscious to show the path to the rest of the society segmented by the top and the bottom – one may categorize as elite and the crowd. Of course, there are thinkers who doubt the role of the civil society some of who enjoyed positions at home and abroad as high officials and lived adjacent to power. Some of these thinkers also doubt the eligibility and legitimacy of the members of the civil society if the latter can ring alarm bell often without understanding that raising questions and getting answers are derived from India’s glorified past – from the questions that warrior Arjuna posed to knowledge-worker Krishna on the battlefield. The war that we face now is Corona war, 2019/2020 – it is a social war that needs effective awareness of people.

Having set the canvas of my discussion, thus, I come to the core point. It is about the workers who migrated to the work-zones – incidentally it was the state of Karnataka, as it could be the states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, and the city-state Delhi that have acknowledgeable carrying capacity implying people from Bihar-Uttar Pradesh-Odisha-West Bengal-Jharkhand have a high propensity to migrate to these economy-capacitated states. This is in practice since many decades that also shows distribution of working force for national labour market equilibrium. I am not repeating the history of migration here that is known to most of the readers here.

What I would try to draw the attention of the competent authority is: can there be bonded labour post-abolition of the practice of bonded labour in India through the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, by the Government of India? In UP, bonded labour is alleged to prevail by alternative nomenclature such as bandhwa mazdoor, bandhak, sevak, harwah, bajgee observed in both agriculture and unorganized industries.

This note is based on one recent example that should not be generalized. The migrant workers post-Corona had exhausted their money-at-hand that they received from the Thekedar as labour compensation within the first 40+ days of lockdown period and as soon as the scope for “roti-roji’’ was lost, they felt compelled to come back home for they were unwilling to continue to stay at the destination. After much hue and cry, the Government of Karnataka requested the Railway authority to arrange train to carry these workers back home-state. In step one, the Government agreed and arranged special train for the migrant workers obviously with sanction from the Railway authority.

The workers were mostly engaged in the private construction sector – workers allowed to leave the destination-state meant labour-deficit as argued by the real estate dealers to the head of the Government in the state of Karnataka, the latter was convinced and argued to control ‘unnecessary’ travel of the migrant workers as if it was going to happen to enjoy scenic beauty. The Government of Karnataka readily acted in step two – it cancelled the step one arrangement of trains. The expectations of the workers were belied for capital intervened. The workers remained caged – bonded for they had to remain engaged in the same work, probably under more repressive conditions or die for hunger. The workers were ready to die at own home in front of their family members rather than starving/dying in an unknown location or disappear on road. So, what choice remained for the migrant workers?

The capital-side actually revealed an L-shaped Iso-quant where non-labour resources like raw materials were in abundance that required proportionate labour to arrive at the kink of the L-shaped curve for production-efficiency. This was based on fixed capital-labour ratio. Workers could not be as smart as capital. So the Government was capital-convinced. These migrant workers were not only from the state of Bihar, they were from different states like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. This meant they were drawn from different out-migration zones by the thekedars for which often the workers took advance wage and often borrowed from local Mahajans. While the advance wage had to be adjusted vis-a-vis total entitled wage-bill per labourer at the destination, loan had to be repaid with interest at the root-village. 

Following cancellation of their “travel’’ to the home-state or Ghar, these workers were kept in Bangalore International Exhibition Centre where they were afraid of getting Corona-affected without understanding what Corona was. This space was a little better than the crammed room in slums they were in. They were being provided Khicdi once to survive in the Centre as “new home’’ – they already burnt holes into their pockets following wage-adjustment and fulfilling food-need at the minimum for biological survival.

Since these labourers were mostly migrants from rural areas, who were illiterate-poor-indebted, their voices were suppressed. They had no exchangeable assets and no elastic time for job search, since not getting job in one day would mean starving for most of them. Being migrants, they could not expect to hire productive assets from any asset owner for providing services in the city. In the absence of secure space they could not shoulder the risk of buying any productive assets in the city, even if they acquired the economic capacity, as they would not be able to protect those.    

Ghar wapsi’’ for these migrant workers was not only for economic reasons, it was more for psychological reasons – for love-affection for family, for their rootedness. All cannot be measured cardinally by the indicator of money. Of course, these workers were now jobless and needed money to survive. However, needless to say, money has different connotations to different sections of the society.  

After much flip-flop, the Government of Karnataka took another U-turn in step three – now arranging the special trains to carry the migrant workers to take them back home – “capitricks’’ (capital-tricks)? Doubt comes to my mind – did the workers understand that their labour-hours were compensated? Could the workers take Government into confidence – for it was U-turn twice after trains were arranged? Would the workers be able to pay for tickets and food on journey? Some innocent workers started walking on railway tracks to reach home without understanding the fatal implications for fatigue-sleeping on track-death-. The competent authority, however, asked the migrant workers to have patience after “successful’’ completion of 40+ days of forced stay at the destination. I also doubt the patience-rationality of these migrant workers: should they become non-workers to acquire warranted rationality?

Apology: To Government of Karnataka for its sympathy for the workers.     

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 9, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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