-Kiran Kamal Prasad, director of JEEVIKA, NGO working to free and rehabilitate bonded laborers and to train government officials
-Vimali T., fifteen-year-old low-caste girl, bonded to a loom owner for Rs. 8,000 (U.S.$167), Kanchipuram, Karnataka, March 21, 2002
Allocation of labor on the basis of caste is one of the caste system's fundamental tenets. Within the caste system, Dalits, or so-called untouchables, have been assigned tasks and occupations deemed ritually polluting for other caste communities. Most bonded laborers are low-caste, illiterate, and extremely poor, while the creditors/employers are usually higher-caste, literate, comparatively wealthy, and relatively more powerful members of the community.184 According to government figures, 86.6 percent of bonded laborers are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.185
In sericulture, most bonded children are Dalit or Muslim, depending on the area.186 The great majority of non-Muslim children whom we interviewed from reeling and twisting units were Dalit, and NGOs credibly report that most children reeling and twisting silk thread in Karnataka, the primary silk thread producing area in India, are Dalit.
The traditional silk weaving caste is a lower caste, called a "backward caste," but in both Varanasi and Kanchipuram districts, Dalits have entered the weaving profession in significant numbers, often by being bonded as children.187 Muslims also dominate sari weaving in some areas, including in urban Varanasi. However, in Varanasi district, Dalits and lower castes have begun weaving in increasing numbers, in part because communal violence and attacks on Muslims have pushed them out of the profession.188
Dalits and low-caste Hindus are the most vulnerable to bondage for the following reasons:
· upper castes traditionally expect that Dalits will perform free services, which helps to sanction the bonded labor system and results in poor Dalits being bonded when poor caste Hindus are not;
Dalits and lower castes are typically restricted to tasks and occupations that are deemed too "filthy" or "polluting" for higher-caste communities, and the poor remuneration of manual scavenging, agricultural labor, and other forms of low-caste employment often forces families of lower castes into bondage. For example, Human Rights Watch interviewed Dalit villagers who weave saris in their homes on looms owned by traders, but whom local landlords also force to work their land. "We have very little land, less than five acres," a Dalit woman in the village told us. "Yes, of course we work on the landlords' land."189 In exchange for a day's labor, a worker receives five kilograms of wheat, worth about Rs. 40 (U.S.83¢).190 "They don't even measure the five kilograms," one man complained. "They just fill up a sack and bring it out to us."191 Another man explained that they couldn't survive on the money earned from this and from sari weaving, so they had to take loans from the traders.192
Because upper castes have expected and extracted free services from Dalits, Dalits are more likely to become bonded compared with equally poor higher caste Hindus. According to respected economist and Dalit activist Professor Shukhadeo Thorat:
Most Dalit victims of abuse in India are landless agricultural laborers who form the backbone of the nation's agrarian economy. Despite decades of land reform legislation, over 86 percent of Dalit households today are landless or near landless.194 Those who do own land often own very little. Land is the prime asset in rural areas that determines an individual's standard of living and social status. Lack of access to land makes Dalits economically vulnerable; their dependency is exploited by upper- and middle-caste landlords and allows for many abuses to go unpunished. Landless agricultural laborers throughout the country work for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (U.S.32¢ to 75¢) a day, well below the minimum wage. Many laborers owe debts to their employers or other moneylenders.195 Thus, although poverty plays a significant role, connection between caste and bondage goes far beyond poverty to what Professor Thorat has described as the "extra economic compulsion of caste."196
Extreme economic and political measures are meted out for transgression of caste norms. Bonded labor flourishes in this environment because people cannot complain. According to Professor Thorat, "The upper castes can exert economic compulsion-if you say `no,' you won't get a loan or employment. . . . They can apply a social and economic boycott-they don't give employment, stop selling goods, exert a complete ban on what [Dalits] need, and they [Dalits] have to seek employment far away."197
These extreme measures include violence, both against Dalits' property and their persons. For example, Human Rights Watch visited a Dalit village in Uttar Pradesh that had stopped weaving after upper castes in the area raided the community and destroyed their possessions, including their looms, in retaliation for their political activity.198 The connection between Dalits asserting their rights and violent retaliation has been well documented by Human Rights Watch.199
Caste-based violence is directly linked to child bondage. Researchers with the Tamil Nadu-based NGO Legal Resources for Social Action (LRSA) report an increase in child labor, especially in domestic and hotel work, following upper-caste raids on Dalit villages.200 When the families' economic assets are destroyed, the parents are more likely to need the children to work. In addition,
Researchers at the National Labour Institute have confirmed these findings.202
Discrimination against Dalit children in school also encourages them to drop out and go to work.203 Most of the government schools in which Dalit students are enrolled, where they exist at all, are deficient in basic infrastructure, classrooms, teachers, and teaching aids.204 Dalit students sit at the back of the class and are often treated badly by upper-caste teachers and staff.205 A majority of Dalit students are also enrolled in vernacular schools whose students suffer serious disadvantages in the job market as compared to those who learn in English-speaking schools.206 Gilbert Rodrigo, LRSA's director, explained:
In Uttar Pradesh, documented discriminatory practices against Dalit children in schools include:
In Karnataka, Joy Maliekal, director of the Rural Literacy and Health Programme and national convenor of the Campaign against Child Labour, told Human Rights Watch: "It is important to make the link between child labor and discrimination in school. In our experience, Dalit children are made to sit in the back and are asked to do work [i.e. chores rather than schoolwork]."209 According to a social worker in Karnataka, "a child will say to his or her parents, `The teacher told me not to come tomorrow, that I am no good for studying.' Instead of asking why the teacher has said this, the parents will send the child to work."210
Discrimination combined with low returns on education, including discrimination in employment, encourages Dalit children to drop out of school; Dalit children drop out of school at a much higher rate than non-Dalits, and there is a higher rate of illiteracy among Dalits than among non-Dalits.211 According to Gilbert Rodrigo, "Dalit kids get left behind, and when they don't see graduates getting jobs, they loose interest."212 A group of low-caste and Dalit silk weavers told Human Rights Watch that if people went to school, "10 percent go for jobs after they study. The rest go back to the first job. Even that education doesn't help."213 And a low-caste teacher in one of Kanchipuram's night schools described his own school experience: "My class had thirty students. I was the only one who went to another job. The twenty-nine others are weaving."214 Although some allege that Dalit and low-caste parents do not value education, this is not surprising if the quality of education offered is very poor and if they see no returns on it.
184 For more information about the connection between caste and bondage, see Human Rights Watch, Broken People, pp. 139-52, http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-09.htm#P1695_354939; and Human Rights Watch, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, pp. 14-16, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/caste0801-03.htm#P292_53595.
185 Ministry of Labour, Government of India, Annual Report 2000-2001, p. 181. This figures appear to be based on both a 1991 Report of the National Commission on Rural Labour and reports from thirteen states through March 31, 2000, of bonded laborers identified, freed, and rehabilitated.
186 This is the case not only in the areas where Human Rights Watch investigated but also in other states, for example, Andhra Pradesh. See, e.g. Narayan K.S. and P. Pushpa Rani, "Silk Industry and Child Workers," Social Welfare, p. 10.
187 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Alakh N. Sharma, Director, Institute for Human Development and author of November 2000 survey of labor in the Varanasi silk industry, New Delhi, March 10, 2002; Remesh, Organisational Structure, Labour Relations and Employment in Kancheepuram Silk Weaving, pp. 26-27. Local NGOs confirmed that Dalit children were being bonded in Kanchipuram's silk looms. For example, according to Girija Kumarababu, consultant for the Indian Council for Child Welfare, "loom owners are sending their own kids to school and taking on S.C. [scheduled caste or Dalit] children as bonded." Human Rights Watch interview with Girija Kumarababu, consultant to the Indian Council for Child Welfare, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, March 21, 2002. And an inspector of night schools in Kanchipuram told us, "silk was only a backward caste, but now everyone can do it so there is no caste bias." Human Rights Watch interview with night school inspector, March 20, 2002. In Varanasi, Human Rights Watch interviewed both Dalit and low-caste children bonded to Muslim silk weavers.
188 Human Rights Watch interview with Lenin Raghuvanshi, People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights, Varanasi District, March 14, 2002; Steven Wilkinson, "The Town Level Causes Of Hindu-Muslim Riots," in Electoral Competition, Ethnic Fractionalization and Hindu-Muslim Violence, presented March 24, 2001, Laboratory in Comparative Ethnic Processes, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, http://www.duke.edu/web/licep/3/wilkinson/wilkinson.pdf (retrieved September 2, 2002).
190 Ibid. According to a local activist, workers in the community were receiving five kilograms of wheat solely because they had organized themselves; elsewhere workers received only two kilograms. Human Rights Watch interview with Lenin Raghuvanshi, People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights, Varanasi District, March 14, 2002.
193 Human Rights Watch interview with Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, March 9, 2002. Professor Thorat also noted that the practice of untouchability leaves Dalits much less free to contract than poor caste Hindus.
195 See Human Rights Watch, Broken People, p. 28, http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-04.htm#P550_72244; Human Rights Watch, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, p. 14, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/caste0801-03.htm#P339_66099.
196 Human Rights Watch interview with Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, March 9, 2002. See also Narayan K.S. and P. Pushpa Rani, "Silk Industry and Child Workers," Social Welfare, pp. 9-10 (documenting the connection between landlessness, subsistence farming, and child bondage); Human Rights Watch, Broken People; Human Rights Watch, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern.
202 According to Helen R. Sekar, a National Labor Institute fellow who conducted field research on child labor in Kanchipuram from 1997 to June 2001, Dalit children in the area often lacked access to schools: "In Kanchipuram, most schools are in upper-caste villages so the S.C. [scheduled caste] child had to travel. If there was a clash between the communities, they would chase the children out of school." Human Rights Watch interview with Helen R. Sekar, Fellow, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, April 1, 2002.
207 Human Rights Watch interview with Gilbert Rodrigo, Director, Legal Resources for Social Action (LRSA) Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002. In some areas Dalits are still prohibited from wearing footwear. Those who wear sandals are seen to be acting outside the dictates of their caste status and are consequently punished.
208 Jean Dréze and Haris Gazdar, "Uttar Pradesh: The Burden of Inertia," Indian Development, Jean Dréze and Amartya Sen, eds. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996) quoted in Nambissan, "Education for All: The Situation of Dalit Children in India," India Education Report, p. 81.
211 See National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Highlights of the Report for the Years 1996-97 and 1997-98 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1999); Department of Labour, Government of Karnataka, Study Material on "Successful Prosecution of Child Labour Cases," p. 4 (reporting results of January-February 2001 survey showing that a higher percentage of Dalit children are out of school than non-Dalits).