Education, development, and reform to counter debt bondage: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights revisited

A Nomad Called Thief:
Reflections on Adivasi Silence and Voice by Ganesh [G.N.] Devy | Publications >>

A Report on Debt Bondage, Carpet-Making, and Child Slavery

In Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Dr. Kevin Bales estimates that there are at least 27 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in human history. Slavery is on the rise around the world for the simple reason that unpaid, forced labor constitutes an excellent (though brutal) means to economic profit. For callous businessmen, slaves are disposable people who toil to meet the global market’s demand for goods. The lower a good’s production costs, the more competitive it will be on the global market.

Ironically, India, the world’s largest democracy, is also home to more slaves than all the other countries of the world combined. With roughly one billion inhabitants, India supports over 15% of the world’s population. And with more than half of India’s population living below the income poverty line3, nearly 40% of the population cannot afford a sufficient diet. As inadequate government expenditure on education, health, and welfare increases the high vulnerability of much of India’s vast population, exploitation – even enslavement – are everyday realities for many Indians.

Due in part to tremendous pressure to participate in the global market, India’s industries readily make use of cheap, even forced, labor. Because a developing country like India lacks the resources to modernize yet enjoys a large potential workforce, slave labor often becomes the preferred method for keeping costs low and profits high. And though India has many employment codes – outlawing child labor, exploitation of children, and bonded labor (a form of involuntary servitude) – slavery, especially that of children, persists unabated. […]

The most prevalent form of modern day slavery, known as debt bondage or bonded labor, occurs when a person becomes a security against a debt or small loan. In India, these loans range from $14 to $214, and are usually incurred for basic necessities like food, emergency needs (e.g. medical treatment), marriage dowry (a long-standing tradition), or funeral expenses. With exorbitant interest rates of up to 60%, these loans are difficult, if not impossible, to repay. Individuals thus become trapped within a system of debt bondage that forces them to repay loans by working unconditionally for their entire lives – even passing on the same debt for generations. Human rights groups estimate that 15 to 20 million slaves are represented by bonded labor in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal alone.

Debt bondage and other types of slavery are prevalent in both export-oriented and domestic industries. Both adults and children are enslaved, though the frequency of child slavery is much higher, as children are easier to exploit.

Trapping Children

The extreme poverty of the harijans or untouchables (the lowest group in the traditional caste system) and the adivasis (the tribals or indigenous people) make them the most vulnerable groups for exploitation. 80% to 90% of all bonded laborers in India are harijans and adivasis. The absolute levels of poverty and the lack of social welfare, education, or alternatives make it very easy for the loom owners to exploit these groups. Within these groups, children are probably the most exploited. One justification for child labor in the carpet industry is the predominant “myth of nimble fingers, which claims that the small fingers of children are more productive than those of adults. (Nevertheless, the quality carpets that can be sold at the highest prices are often those made by adults.) […]

Some children become bonded laborers because they are given to the loom owners on the false promise of an education or good wages (to be sent back home to help the family). Others are simply sold to loom owners because their families cannot afford to feed them. Even more children are simply kidnapped and sold into slavery. […]

UNICEF also helps buy children out of bondage through its support of the Child Labour Abolition Support Scheme (CLASS). In 1996, UNICEF cited a program in which the district collector (administrative chief) in North Arcot bought children out of bondage with the help of CLASS. A UNICEF report states that: “The immediate objective of the project was to develop income-producing alternatives so that mothers could buy their children out of bondage and send them to school. Release fees were negotiated for working children, and their mothers joined self-help groups to raise money. The groups earned income by rearing dairy cows and selling their milk. Mothers qualified for a group buy-out loan and matching grant from the state of Tamil Nadu if they worked for the group and promised to keep their children in school once they were released.28 Buybacks programs, however, are not the solution to ending debt bondage. It would be impossible to pay off the debts of hundreds of thousands of child slaves. But these programs do bring hope to bonded individuals and their families while encouraging local communities to fight for a change in the existing system. Benefits of these programs include education, development, and reform. Nevertheless, the need for a larger solution remains.

Source: “A Report on Debt Bondage, Carpet-Making, and Child Slavery” by Swathi Mehta, Tufts University (American Anti-Slavery Group, 23 June 2010)
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Date Visited: 9 February 2022

Learn more: Bondage | Bonded labour | Childhood | Human trafficking | SlaveryZamindari >>
Human trafficking is a crime. To report in India, call Shakti Vahini
+91-11-42244224, +91-9582909025 or the national helpline Childline on 1098.

“As per a study on human trafficking, the state of Jharkhand has emerged as India’s trafficking hub with thousands of tribal women and girls being trafficked out of the state each year to Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and beyond [while] human traffickers are also involved in many cases of missing children.” – The Wire | Shakti Vahini | Tourism locations | Adivasi tribal bondage slavery trafficking (Safe search) >>

The National Human Right Commission (NHRC) describes “crimes like rape, molestation, torture, fake encounter in police custody as manifestations of a systemic failure to protect human rights”;

It reports that “rights of the people were violated or negligence was shown by a public servant in the prevention of such violations”; NHRC concludes:

“Atrocities against vulnerable sections of society – women, children, disabled and the elderly – are often compounded when they belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”; and therefore demands:

India must ratify the International Convention against Torture.

Educating for human rights and global citizenship

“Nearly sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in spite of progress on some fronts, we are in many cases as far away as ever from achieving an inclusive citizenship and human rights for all. While human rights violations continue to affect millions across the world, there are also ongoing contestations regarding citizenship. In response to these and related issues, the contributors to this book critique both historical and current practices and suggest several pragmatic options, highlighting the role of education in attaining these noble yet unachieved objectives. This book represents a welcome addition to the human rights and global citizenship literature and provides ideas for new platforms that are human rights friendly and expansively attuned toward global citizenship.”–Jacket.

Author: Ali A Abdi; Lynette Shultz
Publisher: Albany : State University of New York Press, ©2008
ISBN: 9780791473733

Source: Educating for human rights and global citizenship (Book, 2008) []
Date Visited: 9 February 2022

The Little Hands of Labour Behind your Smartphone

A joint report by ILO [International Labour Organization] and UNICEF warns that child labour has risen to 160 million – a significant increase in two decades. Governments, corporates, and customers have a responsibility to not remain ignorant. […]

According to ILO, around one million children work in various mines throughout the world. UNICEF estimates that approximately 20% of mine workers are children. They undergo exploitation and are exposed to life-threatening chemicals and gases. Children in gold mines get exposed to mercury which is highly toxic. […]

Read the full report by ILO “a specialized agency of the United Nations” >>

Source: “The Little Hands of Labour Behind your Smartphone” by Feza Tabassum Azmi, The Wire, 16 June 2021
Date Visited: 9 February 2022

It is hard to overstate the importance of ‘the job’ in our current political economy of growth. Elevated to the raison d’etre of most of our waking hours, not having one leads to great anxiety and the race to get one. Survival without a job seems simply impossible. In short, it often defines us and how others think about who we are: whether its ‘managing’ people’s money, harvesting crops or collecting the garbage. Those who hold power over us are often those who can hire or fire us, those who own or control the places where we work. […]

The late anthropologist David Graeber, in the preface to his seminal work Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, concluded that:
‘We have become a civilization based on work – not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself… half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or counter-productive activities – usually under orders of a person we dislike… [and] we rankle with resentment that there may be others out there that are not in the same trap.’

It is hard to fathom in our job-obsessed culture but many people, particularly in the Global South, do not have anything like regular employment, scratching together a living in what economists call the informal sector. […]

Not that there isn’t work to be done – lots of it. But we need to carefully evaluate the content of that work to make sure it sustains rather than obliterates life. Work should help build social justice and ecological viability. Work needs to be organized so that it can be fairly distributed and reduced to what is necessary for modest convivial survival rather than unequal lopsided growth. Like it or not, an increasing number of ecological economists – along with a lively degrowth movement – believe this is where our future rests.

Source: “Living well” by Richard Swift, New Internationalist #534, 8 December 2021
Date Visited: 6 June 2022

All the nations which succeeded in achieving inclusive growth in the Global South had land reforms combined with human capital, invested in infrastructure by promoting capitalism from below and began industrialisation in the rural sector. Only India lost on all three counts.

Source: “The role of caste in economic transformation” by A. Kalai­yarasan (As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor at the Madras In­sti­tute of De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies and non-res­i­dent fel­low at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary South Asia, Brown Univer­sity), The Hindu, 23 June 2022
Date Visited: 24 June 2022

“Is it eccentric to live in beautiful scenery in the hills among some of the most charming people in the country, even though they may be ignorant and poor?” – Verrier Elwin quoted by G.N. Devy in The Oxford India Elwin >>

Up-to-date reports by Indian journalists and commentators

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“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India ( | Learn more >>
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“The contribution of [over 200,000] charities—which range from small concerns to vast India-wide networks—to development and the individual lives of millions of poor Indians is incalculable. Activist groups helped India gain independence in 1947 and have since helped restrain the state’s excesses and compensate for its weaknesses.” – Civil society in India >>

“Doctors in the region [Palakkad district] argue that while the proportion of people with mental illnesses is not unusually high, the problem is a crisis because of their socioeconomic vulnerability.” […] “The non-inclusivity of Adivasis is nothing but racial discrimination. Adivasis were always ruled.” | In-depth analysis ( 5 April 2023) >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)