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Plight of Hindu workers in Pakistani plantations

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    Plight of Hindu workers in Pakistani plantations

    Debt leads to slavery for Hindu workers on several Pakistani plantations
    By MARION LLOYD Special to the Houston Chronicle
    DUMBALO, Pakistan - Every night as he lay on his frayed straw cot, Chatan Bheel plotted his escape.

    The plantation where he worked as a bonded laborer is a four-day walk from the nearest town and the sole road cutting through the fields was policed by gun-toting guards.

    So when he saw a chance to make a break last year, while the field foreman slept after a heavy lunch, he took it. He set off on foot, dragging his leg irons through chest-high sugar cane until he found a blacksmith to cut him free.

    His landlord, Ayaz Virk Punjabi, denied that Bheel was ever chained. But he acknowledged that his former laborer was a slave to a debt he could never repay.

    "They will never get out of this thing," he said, of the dozens of bonded laborers working on his plantation. Virk told how he had bought Bheel from another landlord, to whom he said the laborer also owed money, adding, "I have the receipt to prove it."

    There are tens of thousands of bonded laborers living in Pakistan's southern Sindh province, despite a 1992 law outlawing the practice, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

    The group has freed 7,500 people since 1995, when it started raids on plantations so remote few people ever venture there.

    Today, most of the freed laborers are housed in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Hyderabad, the country's agricultural capital and home to much of Sindh's landed elite.

    The laborers live in flimsy straw huts and eke out a living cutting cane on nearby plantations. They are terrified of pursuing work farther away for fear of being kidnapped by their former owners, to whom they owe huge sums of money.

    Most, like Bheel, fell into an ancient trap. He took a loan for a son's wedding, only to watch his debt magnify beyond his wildest nightmares in the books of his employer. When he questioned the amount, which had grown from $300 to $3 ,000 within a year, he claimed Virk put him and his four sons in chains to prevent their escape.

    "I am still not free. If I go out from here, I can always be caught," said Bheel, 40, who recently brought his family to a camp run by the human rights group.

    Bheel told how, two weeks before, the landlord's men had come to recapture his sons, who were released during a raid on Virk's farm in March. The laborers beat the men back with sticks and tied them up for three hours before the police arrived.

    Such stories sound far-fetched to outsiders. But human rights workers say they are only a glimpse of the nightmare the laborers endure every day. A video the human rights group secretly made in 1996 shows dozens of men in leg irons, cutting cane on a farm near Hyderabad.

    The group estimates there are roughly 50,000 bonded laborers in southern Sindh. Most are low-caste Hindus from the nearby Thar Desert, who remained behind at partition from India only to face exploitation in the newly created Muslim Pakistan. Since most come from traditionally nomadic communities and are illiterate, they are helpless to defend their rights.

    Responding to growing public outrage over bonded labor, Pakistan's Parliament passed a law in 1992 making it illegal for landlords to offer loans in exchange for work or to hold workers hostage to their debts. But the practice has only grown more entrenched.

    A backlash to the law can be felt in the growing threats against human rights workers, many of whom said they had been fired upon by irate landlords, and lawyers, who said they are under heavy pressure to abandon their laborer clients.

    In March, the commissioner of Sindh's Sanghar district - the area where most of the human rights violations take place - assured landlords there would be no more police raids to free bonded laborers, according to local newspaper reports. As a result, the human rights group said no laborers had been released by police in four months.

    Despite mounting evidence of violations by landlords, none had been arrested for flouting the law, much less sentenced to the minimum two years in jail or $1,000 fine it prescribes.

    "A paper law makes a change only in terms of initiating action," Pakistan's law minister, Khalid Anwar, said in his Islamabad office. "Unless you change the cultural practices, you're not going to change the reality."

    He blamed the failure of a string of land reforms to wrest power from the traditional feudal elite for the persistence of bonded labor in Sindh.

    Unlike India, which imposed draconian land reforms in the 1960s and 1970s limiting farms to 12.5 acres per person, Pakistan enacted more liberal limits of 200 acres per owner. And even those restrictions were not enforced, with the largest plantations still spanning thousands of acres.

    Anwar acknowledged that bonded labor was a huge problem in Sindh, and that there could be hundreds of laborers living in chains or in private plantation jails. But he said their release was the job of the local government, which most often are made up of big landlords.

    "How are they going to enforce a law like this?" he said.

    Indeed, most of the landlords, known as zamindars, dismissed the allegations of human rights abuses. They said the laborers themselves demand loans they never intend to pay off and that without bonded labor, the country's agricultural system would collapse.

    "They are bonded only if they feel they are not able to do the work and they want to leave and you have already paid them," said Qamer-uz-Zaman Shah, the chairman of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture. "We tell them, `Either you return the money or you do the work.' "

    Others spouted conspiracy theories to explain growing public pressure to abolish the bonded labor system.

    "The hari (laborer) people are Hindus, and they are blackmailing the zamindars," said Arbab Ghulam Rahim, a member of the National Assembly who has been accused of operating a private jail on his 100-acre farm in Sindh. "It's a conspiracy by India and the Hindu people against the agricultural class."

    Rahim denied he kept his laborers locked up, insisting that the haris as a whole were not exploited. "We have one system of human rights in our country, and you have another," he said.

    However, interviews with dozens of former and current bonded laborers painted a convincing picture of their plight. Many claimed to have been chained day and night and kept in private jails, while the woman told graphic tales of sexual abuse by landlords.

    "This (sexual exploitation) is a general practice with zamindars," said Lachmi Esso, 25, a sharecropper who claimed to have been raped repeatedly by her landlord. "They don't want sexual satisfaction. They only want to disgrace us."

    In another case, Bachi Mallah, a member of a lowly fisherman's caste, said she and her husband escaped six months ago from a plantation in Dumbalo, a town a few hours' drive east of Hyderabad. She showed welts on her thin arms where she said the landlord had beaten her. She also claimed her four sons, who were left behind, were being kept in chains to keep them from escaping. She insisted that her family did not owe any money.

    "We are very happy to be free, but we want our sons back," she said. She now earns $1 a day harvesting cane on a nearby farm.