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Tiny slaves of India

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    Tiny slaves of India

    Ottawa Sun

    As the thin gray dawn breaks over the town of Phillaur, the heat and humidity are so extreme it is hard to tell if the water droplets streaming down people's necks are from sweat or the wetness in the air. Jai Singh, the town's roly-poly resident human rights activist, is already up, sitting in his sarong with a cup of sweet, milky chai, or tea. The ceiling fan installed over his front yard provides some temporary relief from the weather. Loud strains of holy music blare from a set of powerful speakers at the nearby Hindu temple. Drum beats fill the small courtyard.
    Singh is not a lawyer, but a former labor activist and self-styled para- legal whose first priority is to his human rights group, Volunteers for Social Justice, founded in 1985. He and his core group of volunteers have dedicated themselves to freeing hundreds of children, their parents, and even a village from bonded debt labor. The work draws a steady current of people in crisis to his home every day, desperately looking for help.
    On this day, his plan is to briefly reunite Geza Singh Dass, a bonded agricultural laborer, with his children, who are scattered around the countryside, laboring on their own.

    Dass is currently on the run from a brutal boss, Muktiar Singh Mehtiana. Several years ago, Dass took out a 1,500-rupee advance (about $60) from Mehtiana, who then became master to the Dass family. Dass immediately recruited his wife and older children to work the man's land to pay the debt. They subsisted on his wages of 6,500 rupees per year (about $260), and whatever meagre food the master would give them.
    Dass worked the agricultural machinery, helped irrigate the crops, cut fodder for the animals, and sprayed pesticides.
    When he was sick or took a religious holiday, the boss deducted 100 rupees, or $4, per day from his pay.

    Then Dass's wife became ill and he was forced to sell his son Manga into bonded labor to another farmer to pay for her treatment. But the treatment failed, and she died.
    This tragedy meant there was one less person working to pay the debt, against which he was being charged 36% interest. Dass's 14-year-old daughter Pulvinder began working in his wife's place, and was often called up to the master's house to do domestic work. The visits became more and more frequent, and Dass says he soon began to fear she was being "insulted" -- that is, sexually abused. He married her off as quickly as possible.

    Dass himself, meanwhile, was constantly subjected to physical abuse at the hands of his master. Twice, Mehtiana had his henchmen beat Dass so badly, he feared he would die.
    "I was saved by God," Dass recalls, his wide, dark eyes dry and emotionless.
    He says he paid the master 20,000 rupees, but was still declared in debt, even though he had gone so far as to sell off his humble dwelling for 7,500 rupees.
    "I gave all the money to the boss, but I was still not free," he says.
    The cruel system of bonded labor means the master has all the power, Jai Singh explains.
    "Because people are illiterate," he says, "the master keeps the accounts. The master deducts money for food at outrageous rates, and makes the worker sign the bills. The employer never wants to recover his debt.
    He always wants the worker to stay in debt, because number one, he never loses the worker, and number two, the worker loses his bargaining rights."

    Finally, when Dass was denied a day off to return to his home village for a holiday, he realized the only way to free himself from slavery was to run away.
    "I was to go to meet my daughter at Seham Village. The employer refused to allow it, so I went there without telling him, with my children."
    The master's men came to the village to hunt him down, but Dass hid and they did not find him. The boss still claims he is owed 12,000 rupees, or about $340, and Dass doesn't want to return to the farm to collect his belongings.
    "All my possessions are with the master. I can't go back to get them. I am afraid that if they catch me, they will beat me up, and take me back to work," he says.

    He now lives in hiding, doing casual work in agriculture for 40 rupees per day -- equivalent to less than $2 and 15 rupees lower than the minimum wage in Punjab.
    "I dream that I will be freed ... then I will be able to raise my children well and marry them off so they can live happily," he says in a tired voice devoid of passion.
    "I would like to have some good bread and butter and work. One thinks a lot, but it doesn't come true."

    [This message has been edited by KK (edited November 19, 1999).]

    While Dass struggles to free himself from bondage, he will never shed his low status as a member of the scavenger class, the lowest of the dalit , the most oppressed layer of India's rigid caste structure. His social position regulates every move he makes -- even when he eats at Jai Singh's house, he positions his chair a few paces back from the
    table, unable or unwilling to seat himself on par with his hosts.

    It has been months since Dass has seen his children, but Singh has arranged for a brief reunion at the home of one of Dass's married daughters in Seham village. They set out in a hired four-wheel drive into the dusty, deadly insanity of Indian roads, where facing oncoming drivers head-on is routine. Negotiating traffic in India is so challenging, drivers must focus all their attention ahead of them and thus have no time to check rear-view mirrors, Singh explains as his driver roars past cars, cows, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds and pedestrians at an alarming speed, stirring up a thick haze of dust.
    Given the frenzied driving and dense population, accidents are common, Singh says. Fault is determined by whomever is driving the bigger and more expensive vehicle. Everyone makes an effort, though, to avoid India's sacred cows, who amble freely and peacefully through villages, across jammed highways, and into clogged city streets. To hit one is considered extremely bad luck, or karma, and would cause a public uproar.

    The truck stops in nearby Jalandhar City, and Dass descends to collect his 11-year-old son Manga, who lives with a foster family. He earns his keep on the city streets, feeding bunches of sugar cane through a noisy juicing machine that runs on a huge wheel, and then selling the drinks to passersby.

    As Manga proudly demonstrates his trade on the city's busy main street, two slightly older, adolescent boys with painted faces and cloth-and-wire tails solicit money from the passing crowds. They are dressed to look like Hanuman, the monkey god.
    A boy with an orange face crouches and screeches like a primate; for this, he is paid with spare coins, which go to his temple. The second boy just stands and watches; he is in training, learning the monkey act.
    The boy with the orange face has been doing this as long as he can remember. His mother, who was having trouble conceiving, made a promise that she would give her first-born son to the temple if she could have children.
    "I do what my guru tells me," he says, pulling a photo album from a bag. It contains pictures of him with his guru, and letters of reference from local police officers.

    The monkey boys move on, and Manga joins his father in the back of the vehicle with a big smile. They do not embrace, but seem happy to see each other all the same.
    After a 10-minute ride into another village, the vehicle stops again outside a small hut, where Dass's nine-year-old daughter Pammi is living with another foster family -- and temporarily filling in as a domestic servant in an upper-class home while her eldest sister, who has been recently "blessed with a son," recovers from childbirth. Smiling, with her braids tied up in loops on her head, Pammi emerges from a well-appointed home with a high, locked front gate and joins her estranged brother and dad.
    The family's last stop is at the end of a long, bumpy dirt road -- the Wadala farm, owned by a well-known farming family in Punjab, where Dass's 12-year-old son Muldeep is a laborer. His father also worked here many years ago, but was laid off when they changed their farming methods.
    As the family members greet one another, Singh tries to get permission from the boss to take Muldeep out for the day. But permission is denied - Muldeep has to work - and they must restrict themselves to a short visit on the premises.
    Unlike Pammi and Manga, who seem clean and fairly well-cared for, Muldeep's condition is pathetic. His curled hair is matted and covered in dirt like the fur of a stray dog. His solitary, isolated life and absence of any parental supervision has obviously taken its toll on his hygiene. But his job makes it hard for him to stay clean; his primary responsibility is caring for 10 water buffaloes. He rises every day with the sun, feeds the animals, cleans their sheds of dung, cuts fodder for them, and washes them with his
    bare hands in a large pool of water on the property. He works alone until late at night, then he curls up outside on the beautiful inlaid marble floor of the boss's veranda to sleep.
    He has little spare time to play. In any case, he has no friends or peers to frolic with -- he is the only child servant living on the isolated farm.
    "The family has two TVs, but I'm not allowed to watch," Muldeep says despondently, his face downcast. Muldeep's loneliness and misery are remarkable even in a country where thousands of children do gruelling work, since most child workers are at least allowed to return home to their parents at night. Even those who are separated from their families and bonded in industrial settings work with friends their own age, with whom they can commiserate.
    But Muldeep has absolutely no emotional support -- he sees his father and siblings perhaps once every six months, and he is friendless. Worst of all, his mother, the person who cared for him most in the world, is dead.
    "She loved me very much," he recalls as tears stream down his cheeks. At the sight of this, his sister Pammi starts crying, and brother Manga looks upset.

    "I wish my whole family could live together," Muldeep says sadly, as everyone tries not to weep.
    "I will petition the high court to have (Muldeep) freed," says Singh, as Dass, Pammi and Manga reluctantly leave the farm, and Muldeep, behind.


      The problem is, even if Muldeep were freed, there would be nowhere for him to go.
      In his current situation, he is adequately fed and not beaten. If he were returned to his impoverished, fugitive father, Dass would undoubtedly re-sell him into bonded labor, and there's a chance the next master could be abusive.
      Muldeep, like most children of poor families, has no choice but to work, although there is no reason why he must be a bonded laborer. But he is a dalit, and a peculiar quirk of India's child labor system is that the low self-image of the dalit, or most oppressed caste, makes them most vulnerable to bonded labor.

      The child servitude coalition's Kailash Satyarthi, himself a member of the priestly Brahmin caste, observes that even impoverished upper-caste families will avoid selling their children into bonded labor, preferring to have the children help out at home or work for a daily or monthly wage. The caste system is based on the notion that Hindu society evolved from the four parts of the body of Brahma, the Hindu god. The Brahmin came from the mouth, the soldiers and administrators (Kshatriyas) from the arms, the artisans and business class (Vaisyas) from the legs, and the farmers and peasants (Sudras) from the feet. The dalit are casteless, thought to be lower than the ground the feet walk on.
      Brahmins believe the dalit committed an unforgivable sin in a former life, and that their only path to redemption is through the blind acceptance of one's assigned caste role. The caste differences are so entrenched that a dalit in a small village could be beaten for letting his shadow touch the shadow of a Brahmin. A dalit is not even supposed to look a high-caste member in the eye. The system results in a sort of "mental slavery" among the dalit, says Satyarthi.
      "Most of the poor perceive the bonded labor system as part of their life or destiny," he says. "The parents of these children don't revolt."
      Most child laborers in India, however, are not bonded. Of the estimated 55 million working children in the country, Satyarthi estimates about 80% are free in the evenings to go home, either to families or accommodations shared with friends.
      Those children who are bonded are there for a reason. Often they are employed in industries that require highly skilled labor, such as carpet manufacturing. Employers who invest time in training young recruits in the carpet industry are known to confine them, for fear of the children running back home or away to competitors. And the practice persists, despite constitutional guarantees and provisions designed to protect children. Laws against child labor have been evolving in India since 1938, with minimum wages increasing steadily. The number of industries considered "safe" for children to participate in is also constantly being restricted. But the exploding Asian economy has meant these restrictions are often meaningless as new industries that aren't mentioned in the law books sprout up daily. The Indian constitution, drafted in 1950, also guarantees free and compulsory education for all children under 14, but this has never been carried out, aid workers say. According to UNICEF, India has more illiterate people than any other country. Census figures for 1991 show 320 million, or about one-third of the population, cannot read or write.
      With little opportunity for education and an apparently endless cycle of grinding poverty stretched out before them, most poor children have few alternatives but to contribute to the family's economic well-being. Because girls are needed at home to help with domestic chores, they are less likely to be farmed out than the boys, although some do end up in bonded sex slavery. Girls at home usually help with household drudgery like hauling water, washing clothes, cooking and caring for younger children -- work they are generally expected to perform for the rest of their lives, as they inevitably marry and
      have children of their own. Education is generally seen as a luxury better reserved for boys, since they will be expected to earn a wage and support their parents in old age.


        See what I mean Sarwar? This is why balance is a good thing. you needn't reply. Just go away and hide as usual.