Author: Sahib Khan, June 14 2017 - Police freed 45 members of several peasant families, including women and children, from illegal captivity of landlords after raiding their farmlands in a number of villages in Kot Ghulam Mohammad Taluka in Mirpurkhas district, Pakistan, as reported by Dawn [Pakistan's largest English language news source] on May 23, 2017. Some weeks ago, another family was liberated by on the order of court. Acting on the directives of the district and sessions court Mirpurkhas, police of Kot Ghulam Mohammad and Degan Bhurgari police stations raided the farmlands in the villages of Rais Ahmed Khan Bhurgari, Aslam Dal and Deh 214 and got the bonded peasants released. This has become practice in different parts of the country where bonded peasants or workers or labourers are freed on the courts’ order. 

Such problems are not only being faced by peasants but also others workers including kiln workers, domestic workers, and those in other industries. Once they are trapped in bondage, they are enslaved; deprive of medical treatment, a share in crops, and daily wages; and curbed in their free movement. They cannot even exercise their rights of voting according to their own; they are asked by their landlord or employer to vote a certain candidate. Female members of peasants and workers are being harassed sexually by landlords, employers and their managers. Good looking girls of peasants are even kept for sex; and, more shocking, those girls must bear children from pregnancies resulting from forced sex. In the Sindh province, there are some Hindu girls (from Schedules caste) who have had children from their landlords and managers, but some of the babies after birth are killed to avert solemnizing any marriage with Hindu fellows to save their landlords and managers honour. Those female victims are now living very miserable life in a different area of Sindh.

Despite such victimization and persecution, the peasants and workers cannot raise any voice against such situations because of being vulnerable and helpless socially and economically. The situation exists only because they are indebted to landlords or employers after having taken an advance payment before starting work on the fields, kilns, etc., for running their routine life. And the original debt has increased multi-fold over a short span of time. Such incidents are happening every day, and few are reported in the media. The majority of people are still suffering from bondage. They are helpless even to the extent that they have to surrender their wives, daughters and sons to landlords or employers to work as servants as well. When such incidents happened, the victim’s family has to knock at the door of court to register their FIR. Sometimes, they have to stage a protest to get the FIR [first information report] registered against perpetrators. This is because local police are not ready to listen and register the case against culprits as police have a close nexus with local influential to serve its vested interests.

Difficulties arise and people are deprived of rights when they are illiterate, weak and vulnerable socially and economically. This includes those harvesting lands as peasants and working at kilns.  Peasants and workers are frequently landless and may have to erect bushes huts on the land of landlord or employers. Thus, if they would do anything against the interest of landlords or employer, they would be deprived of a job and the small parcel of land where they have erected bushed huts. It becomes difficult to shift to any other place and find a job as a peasant or worker before paying off a debt.

Landlords are strong socially and economically because landlords have not only huge agriculture land but also are running huge businesses and also have developed a nexus with local bureaucracy to serve their vest interests. In addition to this, they hold the main positions at main national political parties in the country, and some are sitting in parliament to protect their interests. They also might have their brothers and close relatives in the bureaucracy recruited by using their influence to maintain their influence in their respective constituencies.

Peasants and workers cannot ask for fair labour rates for sugar-cutting and cotton picking, etc. Sugar-cutting labour rates have been Rs.5 both  when sugar-cane was being sold to mills at Rs.50 and now that it has been increased multi-fold to Rs. 200. Where commodity prices have witnessed multi-fold increases, labour rates are unchanged due to the issue of bonded labour. The government is fixing the price of each commodity, including wheat, sugar, and sugar-cane, but not fixing the labour rates to support labourers or peasants. The same is true for the price of bricks paid to labourers. Additionally, minimum wages are not being provided to labourers or workers employed at petrol pumps, transports companies and the private sector.

Various movements have launched in different parts of country against the practice of bonded labour, but, unfortunately, they have not succeeded to defeat landlord or employers and reduce sufferings of peasants and workers. For example, Veerji Kolhi worked for the bonded peasants in Thar, Sindh, after being liberated from bondage and got hundreds of bonded peasants freed, but, due to the influence of a local landlord, his activism for bonded peasants was stopped, and he is now implicated in a fake case and has been sent to jail for life imprisonment.

According to the Australia-based Walk-free organization, there are 2.1 million of bonded labourers in Pakistan. About 30,000 to 40,000 bonded labourers or peasants were freed within the span of 27 years from 1990 to-date and liberated are living in different camps set up by HRCP [Human Rights Commission of Pakistan] and other NGOs in Sindh and other cities in the country. The freed are mostly bonded in the agriculture sector, kiln and other industries in the country in Punjab and Sindh. In Sindh, the majority (about 75 percent) of freed bonded labourers are Hindu (Scheduled Caste).

The situation of those still in bondage exists in spite of various laws, which can help to reduce suffering of peasants and workers, but unfortunately those are never implemented in letter and spirit. Article 11 prohibits anyone from keeping anybody bonded for labour. Moreover, PPC [Pakistan Penal Code] section 370 also prohibits this; if anyone violates, he could be imprisoned from seven years to ten years. And also section 371 and 374 also helps in eradicating bonded labour. Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance 2002 prohibits it, and, under its section 03, violators could go to jail for seven years. In addition, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSA) 1992 was passed to eradicate bonded labour from the province, but it was not eliminated because of non-implementation of those laws.

BLSA 2015, adopted by Sindh Assembly, replaces or overrules all other all laws passed to eradicate bonded labour. In addition to this, it abolishes culture and trends that support landlords keeping anyone bonded. No landlord can go to court for claiming an advance. If they go to court to recover their advances, under this act the court could not help them. Moreover, the attachment of property of peasants cannot be handed over to them by the court. The confiscated property would not be returned to peasants, once it was sold to compensate in advance of the court order.

Vigilance committees are responsible for fighting for the rights of Haris or peasants. But, unfortunately, vigilance committees are not formed and, if formed, are not functioning properly because of the influence of local landlords. The committee should be formed of 17 members including district officials, an advocate, media personnel, civil society representatives and others. In the last 10 years, no meeting of a committee has been seen to be held to discuss the issue. Aside from this, labour laws regulating wages and safety of workers or employees are never implemented in letter and spirit. There are no funds for rehabilitation of freed peasants and labourers. More interesting, at different times, there are different schemes being launched by government to empower the poor, especially peasants and workers living in the extreme poverty. Recently, the Sindh government has launched Benazir Housing Scheme to provide houses to destitute families in Sindh, but the majority of house units were constructed on lands of local feudal landlords and handed over to their peasants. Whenever the latter leaves harvesting the former's land, they have to vacate those constructed houses, and it would become property of the landlord, and he would shift house units to another his peasants. 

This is all happening because of the flourishing of feudal democracy where feudal landlords are protecting their rights, rather than voters especially peasants, workers. The government has to take serious notice of the issue and get all relevant laws implemented in letter and spirit if it wants to eradicate this issue. In addition, the government has to take concrete steps of empowering the landless by giving them lands through land reforms. Aside from this, the government has to announce and publicise its specific schemes whose direct beneficiaries must be peasants and workers rather than those of the feudal class

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