Caste-based discrimination and bonded labour


(Excerpted from the Human Rights Watch report 'Small change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry') 

Bonded labor in India is not just an economic issue but a social issue linked with caste. Unless we associate bonded labor with caste, we won't understand bonded labor, and we won't find a solution.

~ Kiran Kamal Prasad, director of JEEVIKA, NGO working to free and rehabilitate bonded laborers and to train government officials.

This is the thing that God blessed me with so I have to work like this. I can't do something else. . . . It is written on my head and nobody can change this. I am born into this community so we don't know what else to do. We have to do this and nothing else. . . . I don't want to go to the looms but there is no other way.

~ 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. According to government figures, 86.6 percent of bonded laborers are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

In sericulture, most bonded children are Dalit or Muslim, depending on the area. 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. Muslims also dominate sari weaving in some areas, including in urban Varanasi. However, in Varanasi district, Dalits and lower castes have begun weaving inincreasing numbers, in part because communal violence and attacks on Muslims have pushed them out of the profession.

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 are typically landless and therefore economically dependent on their employers. Economic dependency also keeps them from reporting atrocities against them;

upper castes levy social and economic boycotts as well as perpetrate violence against Dalit communities who challenge traditional practices and try to assert their rights;

upper castes dominate local political bodies, the police and the judiciary, bonded labor vigilance committees, and child labor committees that are supposed to enforce the law on bonded and child labor; and discrimination against Dalit children in school encourages them to drop out and be sent to work.

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." In exchange for a day's labor, a worker receives five kilograms of wheat, worth about Rs. 40 (U.S.83¢). "They don't even measure the five kilograms," one man complained. "They just fill up a sack and bring it out to us." 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.

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:

For high-caste poor, there is no exploitative relationship. They may be underpaid but not humiliated. The poor of [the employer's] own caste are treated differently-there is no compulsion against them. . . . There is a traditional economic relationship based on caste between the landowner and the S.C. [scheduled caste]. These relationships are determined by custom and norms, and these affect the decision of the S.C. to send their children for work. This is on the supply side. High castes will also compel lower castes to send their children for work. They will say, "This is custom. The law is something different." In rural settings, customary services are still performed.

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. Those who do own land often own very little. Land isthe prime asset in ruralareas 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. 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."

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."

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. The connection between Dalits asserting their rights and violent retaliation has been well documented by Human Rights Watch.

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. When the families' economic assets are destroyed, the parents are more likely to need the children to work. In addition,

[i]nvariably, their school or any common asset-e.g., village administrative office, post office, T.V.-they are all put in the main [upper-caste] area of the village so when there is a clash, . . . kids can't travel safely to the main village. . . . There are many occurrences where Dalit children stay out of school for one to three months because, for example, of a riot in the village or reprisals against Dalits, and police take men away . . . . Children are stranded . . . There is a decreased interest in going to school, and they need the income.

Researchers at the National Labour Institute have confirmed these findings.

Discrimination against Dalit children in school also encourages them to drop out and go to work. 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. Dalit students sit at the back of the class and are often treated badly by upper-caste teachers and staff. 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. Gilbert Rodrigo, LRSA's director, explained:

Wherever there is discrimination against Dalit children in school, the children don't want to go. There was a case last week [March 2002] of Dalit kids going with chappals [sandals] to school. They were beaten up. So kids don't want to go to school. This systematically maintains the gap between Dalit and non-Dalit kids. For example, the main noon meal in schools, Dalits depend on. Usually a non-Dalit person is providing the food because non-Dalit parents won't want their children to take food from Dalits. This person calls them by their caste name and makes them stand in separate queues.

In Uttar Pradesh, documented discriminatory practices against Dalit children in schools include: discrimination against Dalit settlements in the location of schools; teachers avoiding physical contact with Dalit children; children from particular castes being special targets of verbal abuse and physical punishment by the teachers; low-caste children frequently being beaten by higher-caste classmates.

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]." 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."

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. According to Gilbert Rodrigo, "Dalit kids get left behind, and when they don't see graduates getting jobs, they loose interest." 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." 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." 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.

http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-09.htm#P1695_354939; and Human Rights Watch,

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.

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,

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, LabourRelations 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. 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).

Human Rights Watch group interview with Dalit villagers, Varanasi District, Uttar Pradesh, March 14, 2002.


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.

Human Rights Watch group interview with Dalit villagers, Varanasi District, Uttar Pradesh, March 14, 2002

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.


http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-04.htm#P550_72244; Human Rights Watch,

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.

Human Rights Watch interview with Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, March 9, 2002.

Human Rights Watch group interview with Dalit villagers, Varanasi District, Uttar Pradesh, March 14, 2002.

See Human Rights Watch, Broken People.

Human Rights Watch interview with Gilbert Rodrigo, Director, Legal Resources for Social Action (LRSA)Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002.

Human Rights Watch interview with staff, Legal Resources for Social Action (LRSA), Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002.

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.

For more information, see Geetha B. Nambissan and Mona Sedwal, "Education for All: The Situation of Dalit Children in India," India Education Report: A Profile of Basic Education, pp. 72-86.

See National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, Black Papers: Broken Promises and Dalits Betrayed (India: National Campaign on Dalit Hman Rights, 1999).

Human Rights Watch interview with Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, March 9, 2002.

National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, Black Papers: Broken Promises and Dalits Betrayed.

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.

Jean Dréze and Haris Gazdar, "Uttar Pradesh: The Burden of Inertia," Indian Development, Jean Dréze and Amartya Sen, eds. (New Dlhi: Oxford University Press, 1996) quoted in Nambissan, "Education for All: The Situation of Dalit Children in India," India Education Report,

Human Rights Watch interview with Joy Maliekal, Mysore, Karnataka, March 30, 2002.

Human Rights Watch interview with social worker, Ramanagaram, Karnataka, March 29, 2002.

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).

Human Rights Watch interview with Gilbert Rodrigo, Director, Legal Resources for Social Action (LRSA)Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002.

Human Rights Watch group interview with silk weavers, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002.

Human Rights Watch interview with night school teacher, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, March 20, 2002.

Courtesy: Human Rights watch



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