How one woman is fighting forced labor in her village in rural India

April 29, 2013

In a remote village of Bhanwargarh in India’s northern state of Rajasthan, one gutsy tribal woman led a successful push to end a decades’ old practice of debt bondage, a form of modern-day slavery, that provided cheap labor to prosperous landowners.

Gyarsi Bai, who as a member of the Sahariya tribe is considered lower caste in India’s caste hierarchy, has already freed 150 laborers and reclaimed 120 acres of their land.

Debt-bondage, as practiced in some rural parts of India, is a way of getting poor people and their generations to pay for minor debts. While the practice is illegal, perpetrators often get away with it out of fear of retribution.

Those fears are well-founded; everyone in Bai’s village remembers a female activist tried to end the practice of child marriage and was brutally gang raped.

But Bai got the police to take action, and told me her story, piece by piece, over the course of about ten days or so. “Aren’t you afraid,?” I asked her repeatedly, as we shared meals, visited her small hut and went to neighboring villages to talk with many of the freed laborers whose lives had been changed. “I have no fear,” she answered.

Married at 13, Bai grew up following the rules of deference towards the upper caste. Over the years she learned she should not use the rope that upper caste women used to pull water from the well, should not come anywhere close to them, and should never get near their food.

She heard stories told in hushed, fearful tones of how people were punished if they dared protest. “People were simply thrown into a furnace — alive.”

Over the years, Bai had put together a small coalition of women who supported each other and raised awareness on issues related to health, education and livelihood. But her activism began in earnest after a local laborer was nearly beaten to death in October 2010, when he failed to show up for work due to illness.

The collective she had helped build immediately swung into action. With the police, as usual, refusing to take action, they communicated by cell phone and got the laborer to narrate his story at a public rally in the city of Jaipur.

Politicians and senior officials of the ruling Congress visited the village in response, and helped pressure local officials into action.

As people learned they could flee their life of bondage, they did — and Gai helped provide food and temporary shelters and organized a round-the-clock vigil to protect them from angry landowners.

One laborer who briefly strayed from the group, was nabbed by an army of landowners, Bai said, but when she called local police they responded, and saved his life.

On top of her list of mobile phone contacts is Rahul Gandhi, son of the Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi.  Bai met him when campaigned in her village.

Still, many laborers are still fighting to get their “certificate of release” and a rehabilitation package which entitles each to a compensation  of  $367. Not a single landowner has been penalized, although under the law, such a violation is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Kalpana Jain is a researcher at the Harvard Business School and a former Nieman fellow.

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