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Report says slavery persists in agriculture sector in all its forms

Updated April 18, 2019

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Iqbal Detho speaks at the event. —White Star
Iqbal Detho speaks at the event. —White Star

KARACHI: The State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh in 2018, the fourth such report in a series, was launched at the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday to mark International Peasants’ Rights Day.

The launch was organised by the Hari Welfare Association (HWA) and the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler). Peasants, workers’ leaders and activists also came together on the occasion to highlight the deplorable state of peasants in Sindh.

The report reveals that agriculture is the sector where slavery is still prevalent in all its forms; slavery in the name of debt, slavery in the name of house, slavery in the name of no other land, slavery in the name of power and exploitation.

During 2018, about 86 cases of bonded labourers’ release and escape from the captivity of landlords were reported in local Sindhi and Urdu newspapers. In all cases, 1,421 bonded labourers were released and escaped, which include 485 women and 494 children. Of the total, 44 people had escaped from the captivity of landlords. Most often the cases of release of bonded labourers are not reported. It appears that the media persons or the media houses have lost interest in the bonded labour issue.

The State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh in 2018 launched to mark International Peasants’ Rights Day

Introducing the report, Akram Ali Khaskheli of the HWA said that Sindh’s bigger population consisted of peasants, or hari kissan, as they are called in local language. “And all these hari are treated unfairly and harshly by the feudal system,” he said.

“This is so due to the non-implementation of acts such as the Land Reforms Act of 1977, the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950 and the Sindh Bonded Labour (System) Abolition Act of 2015,” he said.

Zulfiqar Shah of Piler said that the situation of these landless peasants was similar to that of slaves.

Dr Ashothama from Hyderabad said that it was necessary to look at the peasant movement in a new light as they should be treated like normal workers. “The hari should be seen as a normal worker as he or she is no longer in an isolated category. They need to be brought to the mainstream,” he said.

Focusing more on bonded labour, human rights activist Iqbal Detho said that it was considered a cognizable offense since 1992 after the Supreme Court’s verdict by former Chief Justice Afzal Zullah in a suo motu case of a bonded labourer.

He said Article 11-A of the Constitution had already abolished slavery, but bonded labour, a form of slavery, still existed.

“The National Assembly passed the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act in 1992 but it was never implemented. After the 18th Amendment, the provincial government of Sindh has also made its own law,” he said.

He suggested the establishing of a district vigilance committee under the anti-bonded labour law. “Peasants get no support from lawyers or civil society. Under the District Bar Association Rules [2005] the bars should provide legal support to poor agriculture workers. Currently no pro bono lawyers are available at the district bar associations,” he said.

Mr Detho also pointed out that according to a recent report in two districts of Sindh, over 73 per cent of the children of bonded labourers did not go to schools. They also did not get proper medical aid. “This is so because most bonded labourers do not have legal documents,” he said.

Mahnaz Rahman, resident director of the Aurat Foundation, said that looking at the plight of the peasants in rural areas here she felt as if they were travelling back in time instead of moving with the times. “There is no basic infrastructure in agriculture,” she said, while suggesting that land reforms be initiated in Pakistan. She also pointed out how hard the rural women worked along with taking care of their homes. “If five acres of government land are given to a female peasant, she will be able to earn her livelihood better,” she added.

Ishak Soomro of the Change Organisation observed that peasants’ issues remain unsolved because they are not made into political issues. “No party or politician has taken up the issues of peasants as an agenda or in the assembly. Politicians only do lip service,” he said.

Nasir Mansoor, vice president of the National Trade Unions Federation, said that despite the fact that agriculture workers were included in the definition of labour in the Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2013, the rules of business for registration of agriculture workers were not made, which had deprived these workers of forming their own unions.

Karamat Ali, executive director of Piler, said that citizens’ rights, especially peasants’ rights, were not included in the main agenda of society. “In Pakistan feudalism has increased, whereas it has declined in other countries,” he said.

He also said that the bonded labour movement had never succeeded because all elected representatives belonged to the families of landlords and underlined the need to launch a political movement for peasants’ rights.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2019