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May 13, 2021

Despite freedom from landlords, peasants’ plight remains precarious

HYDERABAD: A recent report compiled by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), shows 3,100 bonded farm workers were freed during 2020; however, what happened to them later is a different story.

They collected this data from local newspapers, saying the number of workers residing in the worst situation may be higher than these figures.

Mostly, one or two members of bonded families fled the farms, which have been turned as concentrated camps, and moved the courts, which tasked police to rescue the workers.

But the author of the report, Akram Khaskheli, leading Hari Welfare Association (HWA), has been unable to find out where did those freed workers go and what were they doing now to survive?

Reportedly, 553 bonded labourers were rescued from the clutches of landlords in Sindh with the help of courts in 2017, following 1,421 in 2018, and 1,722 in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands bonded labourers have been released from such private imprisonment to date but since there was no proper resettlement plan by the government and NGOs, it can be assumed that some of these workers have again been trapped by those landlords, while others have resorted to begging in urban areas.

Pirbhu Satiani, a researcher involved in studies related to workforce in agriculture and brick kiln fields in the province, said mostly these workers have traditional skills to cultivate crops or manage livestock farms.

He said initially during the nineties it was NGOs-driven activism to approach local courts to release bonded labour from agriculture fields through police. They had success helping release a large number from captivity but they lacked the vision on how to rehabilitate them through providing alternatives, like skill training for youth and women groups so they may live with dignity.

In the entire scenario, Satiani pointed out there was no action or penalty against exploiters. For example, following court orders, police conducted raids and released hari families from the fields but there was no plan for their resettlement with alternative sources of incomes, he added.

Satiani said similarly there was no compensation from landlords to these workers to show how much they might have earned while working during their captivity period at farms as well as at brick kilns. The landlords must be made to pay up the bonded labourers’ dues at the time of their released so they may be able to start a new life easily, he stressed.

Except for one or two incidents, there was no report of lodging FIRs against the landlords to punish them for their crimes under Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 2015, according to Satyani.

Dr Hyder Malokani of Green Rural Development Organisation (GRDO), who claims to have helped free hundreds of bonded families, said only in Hyderabad district and Kotri town of Jamshoro district six colonies were set up specifically for the rehabilitation of these bonded labour families.

These colonies included Sikandarabad Hari Camp, Baba Sallahuddin Camp, Hoosri Hari Camp, Azad Nagar Hari Camp, Himatabad, Umerkot Hari Camp, he said.

These hari camps were established for the rehabilitation of bonded haris, Malokani said and added that reportedly certain residents of these camps in connivance with builders had been selling their plots to outsiders to build houses in these camps. Malokani sharing updates said Azad Nagar Hari Camp near Tando Haider, Hyderabad district had 307 plots, out of which 56 plots had been sold to outsiders by the leaders of bonded families, settled there.

Similarly, Himatabad Hari Camp was established to accommodate 400 families on 14 acres of land; however, presently around 100 families, all bonded workforce freed from different areas were settled there.

The plots that were sold for just Rs10,000 each now value Rs1-1.2 million, he said.

Malokani said prices of agricultural land in the area currently ranged from Rs500,000 to Rs10 million per acre, thus many influential people and politically-backed workers were eyeing to do make illegal money out of these resettlements.

Some independent researchers in the agriculture field said most of these local NGOs were operating on foreign funding. After stopping funding for bonded labours, these NGOs left these workers in the lurch, they said adding that as a result the voice for support grew weaker and victimisation continued in one or another form.

The cruel system of slavery is going strong in the province despite tall claims by the governments and political parties.

Despite the advent of technology in this major economic sector (agriculture) the curse of bonded labour continues.

Peasant workers in Sindh still recall the horrible incident in which an influential landlord had abducted 11-member family, including minor children of a hari named Manoo Bheel in 1998 to recover Rs190,000 loan he lent them. Bheel fled the field (concentration camp), violating the traditional system to make complaints against the landlord in the local court to seek justice.

Later, Bheel led an anti-slavery campaign for a long time, motivating fellow workers to unite against this cruel system.

Despite receiving moral support from almost all trade unions and the civil society, the 11- member family was still missing and nobody has heard from or seen them to this day.

The poor peasants take small loans in advance to fulfill their immediate needs. It is going on from one generation to another in which children are born and women are married into bondage, as they cannot decide about their lives in this cruel system.

If they borrow Rs5,000 it keeps on multiplying and turns into tens of thousands if not paid in time. These poor workers being illiterate cannot check what amounts the landlords’ men were entering into their account and for what purposes. Though they work continually to repay the debt, the cruel system does not count it and the vicious cycle goes on to exploit them for years.

According to activists bonded labour is in force in Umerkot, Sanghar, Mirpurkhas, and Tando Allahyar districts, where influential landlords hire worker families for cultivating agriculture fields. They are allowed to build makeshift abodes to live. They are never allowed to return back to their native areas to meet their relatives because by that time the landlords have captured them their debt traps.

Successive governments have introduced land reforms in 1950s, 1970s, and later to distribute pieces of land among landless haris, entitling women-led households. Ironically not a single bonded labour family got any benefit from this move. Had that happened they might now have been utilising their traditional skills to cultivate crops and contribute to the national exchequer.