Interview with Former Union Labour Secretary, Government of India, Dr L D Mishra

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Of late, Odisha has seen an upsurge in cases related to human trafficking and bonded labour. With the state government proactively leading the rescue and rehabilitation of many men and women held captive under exploitative conditions in neighbouring states, things seem to be changing for good. However, a lot more needs to be done.  On occasion of LABOUR DAY, Former Union Labour Secretary, Government of India, Dr L D Mishra shares his views on migrant labourers of Odisha and challenges surrounding the crime

  1. What exactly is bonded labour and how big is the problem in Odisha?

Bonded labour implies service rendered under bonded conditions i.e bereft of freedom, dignity and security with an element of coercion and regimentation. Denial of wages, denial of the freedom of movement, denial of the option/discretion to change the employer and other means of livelihood, denial of the price of labour as also the product of labour are the consequences of bonded labour system. These consequences are alternatives and not conjunctives. Bonded labour system may appear in many forms such as customary bondage (bartan system/gothi/halia/barmasia in Odisha), debt bondage and bondage arising out of trafficking i.e. trading in men like commodities.

Section 14(e) of BLS (A)Act speaks of surveys to be conducted by the Vigilance Committees (to be set up by the State Govt.at the district and sub-divisional level) for identification of the victims of bonded labour system.

Odisha has 30 districts and 58 sub-divisions. No information is available as to whether such VCs have at all been constituted and re-constituted after expiry of 2 years,  whether they are functional whether surveys have at all been systematically conducted from time to time, what are the findings and to what extent they have been acted upon. 

  1. What leads to distress migration and which areas in Odisha are the worst affected? Why?

Landlessness, non-availability of stable and durable avenues of employment, non-payment of statutorily notified minimum wages, large size of the family with less number of earning members and many mouths to feed, non-functional public distribution system and spiralling prices of commodities to be purchased from the market lead to distress migration. Additionally, small and marginal farmers who on account of the high cost of production are unable to sell the farm produce and recover the high cost of production have no other wherewithal except to leave their hearth and home and go for work at alternative locations outside the state.

Districts like Kalahandi, Nuapada, Balangir, Nawarangpur, Rayagada, Koraput and Malkangiri which are less irrigated, dry and drought-prone with sizeable PC of families being below the poverty line are also prone to migration.

  1. What are the ways and means innocent men are lured into such traps?

Mal-functional and dys-functional middlemen approach such BPL families who are already heavily indebted to the village landlord/money-lender, pay them advances to liquidate the said debt, offer hopes, promises and allurements of better employment, better wage, better working conditions, better standard of living and recruit them for work at the work-sites of the destination point. Needless to mention that no sooner the workmen have arrived at the work-site of the destination point, all the promises made are belied and the workmen are subjected to a pit of ruthless exploitation. Ignorance of the provisions of the law relating to inter-state migration, pervasive illiteracy and lack of bargaining power and skills are the factors responsible for such an unfortunate situation. 

  1. How effective is the public justice system in dealing with the crime?

Promoting and sustaining bonded labour system is a cognisable and bailable offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years and also with fine which may extend to Rs 2000/.

There are a number of offences listed in Sections 16,17, 18,19 and 20 of Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act,1976. All these offences are triable by adoption of summary procedure as laid down in Section 21(2) of BLS(A)Act read with Sections 260 to 265 of CRPC,1973.

Section 21(1) of BLS(A)Act provides for appointment of Executive Magistrates to be vested by the concerned State Govt. with powers of Judicial Magistrate 1st or 11nd class. The functioning of the public justice system under BLS(A)Act would depend upon;

  1. Quality of human resource to be adjudged by their having a complete command over the law including case laws, respect for the principles like simultaneity and immediacy laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in handling all cases of bonded labour, empathy and sensitivity for those for whom the law on abolition of bonded labour system has been designed.
  2. Quality of training imparted to make the functionaries of public justice system responsible, responsive and sensitive. No such assessment has yet been conducted to adjudge the quality of human resource as also the quality of administration of the public justice system in Odisha visavis the enforcement of the BLS(A)Act. 
  1. Is the Government doing enough? What measures should be taken to rein in the habitual offenders?

Answer: In the initial years when BLS(A)Act was enacted on 09.02.76

preceded by promulgation of an Ordinance on 25.10.75, there was a lot of gusto and tempo in the activities at the ground level launched by the State Govt. to eliminate the scourge of bonded labour system.

More than 40 years have rolled by ,there have been sweeping changes in the social, economic and political system as also in the labour market and it is difficult to say if the same gusto and tempo have been maintained over the years and whether the government is attaching the same priority or paying the same concentrated attention to elimination of bonded labour system as before.

A few positive measures such as (a) opening seasonal hostels at a few selected pockets where children of migrant parents can be left for stay and study (b)entering in to MOUs with neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to protect the interests of labourers migrating from Odisha to the former (c) maintaining constant liaison and co-ordination with various other destination States and (d)maintaining an up-to-date data base on the movement of people from Odisha to other States have been taken.

The following measures could be thought of to rein in habitual offenders:

  1. Preparation of a State-level Action Plan with short, medium- and long-term objectives and goals linked to elimination of bonded labour system.
  2. Identification of areas which are sensitive to prevalence of bonded labour system and collection of all possible and relevant intelligence about the same.
  • Documentation of habitual bonded labour keepers area wise (on the basis of periodic surveys which might have been conducted) who have been maintaining a system of attached agricultural labourers (halias or barmasias) or who are responsible for continuance of the much despicable bartan system.
  1. Documentation of middlemen/recruiting agents who have been regularly recruiting inter-state migrant workmen on payment of advances, driving them to pits of bondage, keeping them in a state of constant trepidation and psychosis of fear and threatening them from time to time that they cannot leave the work-site without liquidating the advances taken by them at the time of recruitment.

Such intelligence and documentation collected and prepared in a rational and scientific manner would come quite handy in initiating legal and penal action at the appropriate time.

  1. How can the vulnerable population be sensitised about the issue of safe migration?

We need to draw up an advocacy campaign for them. The thrust is this campaign would be preparation of balanced sheet which should have 2 sides. On one side, we should draw a list of temporary gains like liquidation of local moneylender’s debt through the advance received from middlemen, same employment & some income or same where withal to them keep body & soul together for some time.

On the other sided, the damage caused, or the long-term adverse consequences of migration should be listed. These are:

  • Long hours of work without spread over;
  • Non-payment of wages in time; deduction from wages for payment of commission to middlemen;
  • Absence of weekly off;
  • Unsafe & accident from worksite;
  • Children accompanying parents being worst victims of educational deprivation;
  • Women & girls being possible victims of sexual harassment at the workplace;
  • Abusive behaviour / repressive treatment of employer & his minions.

Once the sensitisation agents start explaining these adverse consequences, it will not take long time for workers to get convinced that distress migration is not in their best interest & that they should not migrate.

No such drive for the conscientisation of the potential victims of inter-State migration has, however, been undertaken.

 

 

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