As far back as his memory goes, Sajjan Oad, now 33, had only seen his late father, a farmhand, being rebuked, abused and kicked by the landlord’s men.
“As a child, I hated seeing my father being disgraced,” says Oad. “It was embarrassing that he did not stand up to them.”
He and his family live among the nearly 100 households in Azad Nagar, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, Sindh’s second largest city. All of them have, at one time or another, worked in bondage with no rights or privileges as peasants, haris (landless peasants) or labourers. They are now ‘azad’ or free of their crushing bondage.
Another of these emancipated haris is Sodho. Before him, he says, his father and also his grandfather underwent the same treatment. “We only saw cruelty and injustice meted out to us,” narrates the lanky farmer who remained in this life of perpetual fear for nearly five decades before he became a ‘free man’ in 2009.
Although the forms of oppression have changed and the limelight has shifted, landless peasants and sharecroppers continue to struggle under mountains of debt
“But no more!” beams Oad with pride. “We all still work either as farmhands at nearby farms or as brick workers at the brick kilns, but we work wherever we want and whoever we wish to work for.”
But even the story of their release is fraught with ordeal. Their zamindar (landlord) first kept them in chains on his land but when he was informed that the police were going to raid the place, he had them sent to Achro Thar, where they remained in chains for two months. This case (2009) was reported on internationally, and somehow Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Pakistan at the time and had a meeting with the president, brought the matter up with him. Pressure continued to be mounted on Pakistan by the US embassy, and subsequently, on the order of the Sindh High Court, another raid was carried out in Achro Thar. This time, the police succeeded in getting the peasants released.
Although those living in Azad Nagar may feel they have broken free to an extent, there are scores of haris (also sharecroppers), many from Oad’s tribe, who continue to live in bondage. “Their entire families including children (some as young as seven or eight) work without wages to pay off debts to their employers,” says Oad.
The trauma of such an abusive cycle tends to take its toll on haris. Describing life before and after bondage, Sajjan says: “We lived life on their [landlord’s] terms then; but today we live it on ours! The sense of freedom just cannot be described!”
THE MECHANICS OF BONDAGE
Jumman Wasan, 45, is a landlord with five acres of land in a village in Tando Allah Yar in Sindh, on which he grows sugarcane and employs five haris. He explains the relationship between the hari and the landholding zamindar is based on sharecropping where the haris have to put in 50 percent of their share in seed, pesticide, fertilizer and fuel for running machines such as tube-wells and tractors. “The haris cultivate and harvest the land and once the produce is sold, the profits or loss are divided, equally among the field hands,” he says.
The reality, however, is less sanitised.
In theory, sharecropping entails the equal sharing of expenses and profits. But that never happens. The hari keeps borrowing money for inputs as well as to meet household expenses. The landlord, however, charges interest on the loan. And since the hari is completely unlettered, the munshi [executive assistant] can fudge the numbers on the expense sheet in favour of the landlord. By the end of it, the hari is given nothing as he is told everything he earned has gone into debt servicing.
As a result, the haris never have ready cash to buy their share of the inputs or even the groceries for home and they have no option but to borrow money the year round. This cycle of perpetual debt is called bondage — labourers are bound to their landlord as a slave would be to a master, for as long as they owe money to the landlord.
In some cases, when “ownership” of labourers is transferred (when another landlord “buys” the hari), the debt of the worker is also transferred. The buying landlord pays off the debt and saddles the hari that he has bought with the same amount.
Today, bonded labour is found in different shades and hues and can be bracketed under modern day slavery.
Bonded labour definition has changed over time as newer forms have been discovered. It’s also used interchangeably with modern day slavery or sometimes comes under it. The latter includes those working in mines, as maids at home, people in fisheries etc. In a nutshell, it includes workers who do not fall within the realms of formal “labour.” They are typically not governed by labour laws, rather their lot is decided by the master for whom they work. The crux of the problem is loans and debts that is the heart of the exploitation where people are forced to work.
A recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), says an estimated 40.3 million people are victims of bonded labour around the world. Of these, women and girls account for nearly 29 million or 71 percent. These new estimates were released during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. For the first time, forced marriage is also included in bonded labour.
When we started work, last November, the contactor gave us 24 lakhs as advance. From then to the time we completed the harvest in May, we were not given a single rupee,” he says, adding that the total harvest that they did was worth Rs 90 lakhs. “Not only were we swindled of 66 lakh rupees, but he told us we owed him 10 lakhs.”
THE LEGAL STRUGGLE WITHIN
The HRCP was the first to raise its voice against the practice of bonded labour and began working towards eradicating it in 1988 when lawyer and social activist Asma Jahangir filed the first-ever public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on behalf of brick-kiln worker, Darshan Masih, taking the State of Pakistan to court. A group of brick-kiln workers held in bondage had sent a telegram to the then chief justice of the Supreme Court pleading to be saved from the exploitation at the hands of their owners.
“The judgement by Justice Muhammad Afzal Zullah fell short of human rights standards, but provided relief to the poor,” recalls Jahangir. “However, the publicity it received helped bring the issue on the radar of rights groups and a realisation dawned on a population largely ignorant or unaware of their rights as labourers.”
Dr Ashothama Lohano has been part of the anti-bonded labour movement since it began in the mid-1980s in Sindh. As a young man, Dr Lohano witnessed first-hand the raids carried out by the police to recover literally “thousands” who had been held in captivity for years, “even in chains”, and he was part of the HRCP team that set up resettlement camps for the freed people. Today, the seven camps HRCP had initially set up continue to be used by the bonded labour on self-support basis.
In 1989, a Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, draft bill was presented and it was promulgated in 1992. But the law remained toothless because the rules and guidelines for its implementation were never drafted.
“The government must come up with a broad spectrum of bonded labour policies based on progressive lines as one-size-fits-all does not apply if they want to eradicate this form of labour,” says Asma Jahangir, co-founder of the HRCP.
Bonded labour has “changed tremendously,” she acknowledges, and there is less “oppression,” but without engaging the peasants there will remain a disconnect and the “policy will be as ineffective as the law is in its present state,” points out Jahangir, a recipient of the 2014 Sweden-based Right Livelihood Award, also called the ‘alternative Nobel prize’.
Ghulam Haider, who heads the Green Rural Development Organization (GRDO) that has been working for the rights of workers and bonded labour for over 20 years now, laments that the state has turned a blind eye to the issue. A little bit of bad publicity internationally would be one way of getting the state’s attention to curb bonded labour, in his opinion.
“Civil society needs to flag the issue of bonded labour and urge the European Union to remove Pakistan from the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status,” suggests Haider. Using the GSP as a tool, he says, the state may be arm-twisted into routinely conducting investigations into cases of bonded labour and prosecuting those responsible for perpetuating this practice. Haider continues to fend off threats — he’s even been shot at — and warnings that he receives in the line of his work.
“During her second term as prime minister (1993-1996), Benazir Bhutto, brought the law to life by directing the deputy commissioners in Sindh to support the rights groups,” says Jahangir, adding there was much opposition from the parliamentarians who were big landlords themselves.
Bhutto, she said, interacted with the HRCP directly and was personally committed to eradicating this form of bondage. “Once we had the support from the highest quarter, there was no looking back and we were able to get thousands of peasants and their families held in bondage, released,” Jahangir narrates with a sense of euphoria. “This helped the peasants seek legal redress as well and the hari movement began in earnest. It was rewarding yet thankless.”
As this issue drew more attention, some civil society groups jumped into the fray but they did so unmindfully, unclear about their goals, nor did they realise their “limited capacity”. At the same time, she says, some miscreants infiltrated the ranks, on both sides — as bonded labour, exaggerating their losses and becoming “artificial leaders” of the victims as well as the so-called well-wishers of the oppressed. Even civil society groups cashed in and showcased the peasants only to gain publicity.
Jahangir cites the famous case of Munoo Bheel, who back in 2003, then in his 70s, went on a six-hour daily token hunger strike outside the Hyderabad Press Club because nine members of his family were forcibly abducted by men belonging to their former landowner, Abdul Rehman Marri, in 1998. Today, Bheel lives in one of HRCP’s camps, in a life of anonymity and the same civil society that cashed in on his plight has lost interest in him and forgotten that his family members still remain missing.
TURN OF THE TIDE
When Sodho and his family were in bondage, the landlord’s guards would bang at the door of their living quarters and call them out at all odd hours after work, sometimes even in the middle of the night. “Whoever opened the door would receive kicks and punches for not opening the door instantly,” he recalls.
But an event in 2008 was a turning point not just for Sodho’s family but for 25 other families.
Sodho narrates the story of his fight to freedom with pride: “Like every year, that year too , our landlord Zubair Sahito, refused to give us our share of the profit saying we had used it all up. His accountant showed us a long list of things we had spent our share on — loans for seeds, water, fertilizer as well as personal loans.”
But that year, unlike the years before when he felt resigned to accept his fate, something snapped inside Sodho.
“I spoke to other farmhands and we decided to protest and, with the help of activists, filed a petition in court,” he says. “I was warned that if I did not withdraw I’d have to face the consequences as even the police were on the landlord’s side.”
Defiant, Sodho was like a man possessed.
The landlord decided to teach all of them a lesson for their act of rebellion. He kidnapped 89 members of the 26 families working at the farm and threw them in the middle of nowhere, in the desert of Achro Thar, in Sanghar.
“Many of the women were routinely whipped, the kids drugged to keep them quiet, and nine of the girls gang-raped,” says Soomri, Sajjan’s mother. Her husband died during incarceration and they suspect he was tortured to death. “We were shown his face in a shroud and the body was taken away immediately.”
It took the police two months to recover them and the landowner was put behind bars. “He served a sentence in jail for six months,” says Sodho. During the next six years, the small farmers who had sided with him were threatened and bribed. “In the end there was nobody by my side for support and so in 2015, I, too, relented and agreed for an out-of-court settlement for which the landlord gave 20 lakh rupees and which was distributed among the 25 families.”
Last November, Ghulam Abbas, a hari, managed to take 136 men and women from his village in Odero Lal to work as farmhands on a 500-acre farm in Rahim Yar Khan to harvest sugarcane.
Dressed in an ironed cream kameez over a white starched shalwar, and sporting a fashionable pair of glasses, he looked more like a middleman than a farmer. He had previously taken bigger groups of workers to southern Punjab for the last 12 years and had never faced a situation like the one he did last winter.
“The rate that was fixed for us was 20 and 25 rupees per maund [one maund = 40kg],” says Abbas taking out a scrap of paper from his pocket. It had some numbers written by hand which he explained was the daily rate of harvest he had been promised. But these numbers could have been written by anyone and denied by those who actually quoted them; the rates were not on any bond paper nor signed and stamped, having little legal status.
“When we started work, last November, the contactor gave us 24 lakhs as advance. From then to the time we completed the harvest in May, we were not given a single rupee,” he says, adding that the total harvest that they did was worth Rs 90 lakhs. “Not only were we swindled of 66 lakh rupees, but he told us we owed him 10 lakhs.”
Abbas with the help of GRDO has taken the contractor to court. But the landlord has also filed a counter-suit, alleging that the peasants had to return his 10 lakh rupees. “I have become quite unwell,” says Abbas, helplessly adding: “On the one hand are these powerful people I am fighting a court case against with practically no money and on the other are these villagers who hold me responsible for the fraud, and keep sending police after me to return the money I owe them.”
Ghulam Haider of GRDO comes across such cases all the time. “Landlords do not pay dues to the share-croppers and peasant labourers and instead lodge fake cases against them when they demand their due share,” he says.
GOONS VERSUS GOONS
For the past several years a booming business has surfaced in Sindh where a group of lawyers and middlemen with support from police officers secure bonded labourers’ freedom, but at a fee.
“Even the manner they release [them] is similar to the operation conducted by police, complete with getaway vehicles, armed men both in plainclothes and in police uniform,” narrates Dr Lohano of HRCP. “The only difference is the raids are conducted without a court order and are therefore an illegal exercise.”
The landlord is threatened that he would be produced in the court and put behind bars since he was involved in a crime for keeping people in bondage and a certain sum of money extricated from him. The lawyers and middlemen also take a fee from the peasants in the form of livestock or cash — which the peasant would have to borrow from other peasants. At times, soon after the fake operation, the peasants are hauled back or sold to another landlord and their plight in bondage continues.
A FUTURE OF FREEDOM?
Holding people in bondage has been deemed a crime since 1990 but campaigners such as the GRDO’s Ghulam Haider say the government has done little to enforce the anti-bonded labour law and the handful of inefficient reforms that were brought in have failed to properly address the issue.
Additionally, there is no one to speak on their behalf in parliament. According to Lohano, “These stateless people without a national identity card are not a vote bank so why would parliamentarians be interested in helping them?”
Skewed statistics present a clear picture of why people such as Sodho will likely never come out of poverty: five percent of the country’s population owns almost two-thirds (64 percent) of arable land and 45 percent of those linked to agriculture remain landless. And while new roads and highways make it possible for the exceptional case of running away from the landlord’s chains, the norm is that if a peasant decides to ‘run away’ his wife or kids will be held back or even kidnapped.
That said, after the 18th constitutional amendment, resolving the issue of bondage falls under the purview of provincial governments: Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have already come up with their bills, but Sindh’s has been ready for the past two years gathering dust. Balochistan has not done anything on this front.
Jahangir insists mapping as the first step to get a clear picture for formulating policies, for example for the distribution of arable government land in Sindh and coming up with attractive farming packages for the peasants. “The government has acres and acres of land and I’m sure those in bondage are just in thousands and can easily be given small tracts they can cultivate and eke out a living from,” she says.
Former hari Sodho Oad scoffs at such a suggestion saying: “Those who can give us state land are the same people who treated us with cruelty for generations. Do you think their hearts are big enough to share it with us?” He further says the legislators who could take those decisions were the big landlords who were often land grabbers themselves.
The labour perspective is that even if a peasant gets land, he has to be given a package to support him in cultivating the land, at least for some time. There is therefore an urgent need to take such points into account when a policy is being formulated.
Dr Lohano also points out that the agro-economy has changed so radically that, in order to come up with robust policies in favour of bonded labour, it was important to realise the new challenges that beset the agriculture sector. “For example, the price of hybrid seeds, the water distribution as well as shortage faced by those at the tail-end of canals and the rain-dependent agriculture needs to be taken into account and included when drafting policies,” he argues.
Many former cultivators have left the occupation, moved to urban centres and have become engaged in miscellaneous work or as daily wagers at farms. He says climate change should also be taken into account that has rendered arable land unfit for agriculture.
Meanwhile, Soomwar Bhagat, a former bonded labourer, has been living in the 11-acre Azad Nagar which has been set up by GRDO with help from Action Aid, where Sodho and Sajjan live. Today, he runs his own shop selling everything from candy to cigarettes. He also looks after the small temple near his home and hopes his seven children are able to educate themselves as that was the “only way to turn their fortunes”.
“If they are educated, nobody will be able to cheat them since they will be able to read what and how much is owed,” he says simply. Sadly the nearby one-room school started by the NGO is padlocked as the teacher hardly ever shows up.
The writer is a freelance journalist. She tweets @zofeen28
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2017