Slavery is a dreadful concept which is considered unacceptable in most parts of the world – yet in Pakistan, millions of people continue to live in bondage, forced to suffer subhuman conditions and daily humiliations at the whim of those who ‘rule’ their lives. According to a survey conducted by Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the early nineties, there were 1.7 million people in bonded labour in Pakistan. However, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that the number exceeded 2 million. Responding to international pressure, the Government of Pakistan promulgated the “Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1992”, under which a vigilance committee was to be immediately set up in every district of the country to monitor whether bonded labour was being enforced anywhere and to work for the rehabilitation of erstwhile bonded labourers.
Unfortunately, none of the work mandated under the said Act has been carried out to this day. No case has ever been registered under this Act against any landlord subjecting citizens to bonded labour. According to some NGOs dealing with human rights cases, more than 3 million bonded labourers have been freed through High Courts and Police under Section 491 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). This law is meant for illegal confinement and not specifically for bonded labour, therefore the people freed under it could never receive any compensation for their rehabilitation, as it would be in case of implementation of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1992. Near Hyderabad, there are 7 to 8 private Hari camps where erstwhile bonded labourers live out of fear that their former landlords might round them up and take them back as bonded labour on their farms.
In 1998, in district Badin, Matli city, landlords Ghulam Qadir Mari and Mureed Khan Mari reportedly attacked a Hari camp (camp of Sindhi farmers who work for landlords) with their personal force and took back 108 workers in trucks, against which civil society launched a strong protest. International organizations also got involved and pressured the government for the release of the Haris. Then Senior Superintendent Police Hyderabad, AD Khawaja took a special team to district Sanghar and got 107 out of 108 Haris released. One of the captives, who was vocal against the landlords, was killed.
In the year 2009, inside Azadnagar Hari Camp, Tando Hyder, an influential landlord named Abdur Rahman Mari reportedly took his personal force and attacked the Haris who were living there temporarily. The Haris surrounded that force, captured the landlord’s son and handed him over to the police. However, the police ended up releasing him and, for obvious reasons, failed to issue any penalty.
The above named Abdur Rahman Mari happens to be the same person who, in 1996 near Jhudo city, district Mirpurkhas, had abducted 13 farm workers belonging to the Mannu Bheel family. This incident was widely reported in the national and international media. Bheel was not present himself but his whole family had been abducted. He continued protesting at Hyderabad Press Club for 8 years but to no avail, as the whereabouts of his family have not been traced till this day. Some sources say all his family members have been killed. On the other hand, Abdur Rahman Mari claims that Mannu Bheel owed him a debt of 30 thousand rupees, to escape payment of which he staged a drama of his family’s abduction!
Whenever one talks to exploitative landlords about the issue of bonded labour in the province of Sindh (where it is most prevalent), they insist that the farmers working for them are under their debt and are therefore bound to pay back what they owe. If the Haris are not in a position to pay back the money, they must continue working on the landlords’ farms and earn it off. However, in most cases this traps the Haris and their families in a vicious cycle of crushing poverty and a never-ending burden of debt.
How unimaginable would it be if our household electricity bill was to exceed a certain figure, and owing to our inability to pay it back, the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) would take away our family members to keep them in confinement till the payment is made! Landlords, businessmen and bureaucrats themselves often owe large amounts in debt to agricultural and other banks and are also tax defaulters. Yet they refuse to write off even a single rupee from the relatively meager amounts reportedly borrowed by their farm workers. Imagine how the landlords would feel if their children were to be abducted and kept in virtual imprisonment for years for the recovery of their fathers’ loans!
And as for social workers and human rights activists who speak out for the rights of these Haris, they are often labeled as foreign agents who are enemies of the country and wish to damage its economy by ruining relations between the landlords and their workers. The power these landlords wield cannot be underestimated as they make up a majority of the decision-makers and politicians in this country.
Veerji Kohli, a social activist from Sindh, is a specialist in the issue of bonded labour and has handled numerous such cases. He reports that the treatment of bonded labourers is appalling, but women in particular end up suffering the most. Apart from the physical abuse that is routinely meted out, women are also subjected to extreme sexual abuse.
Baba Salahuddin Hari Camp’s dweller, 37-year old Shrimati Meeran Kohli narrated that she was 23 when she and her family were sold for the second time to a landlord of district Sanghar. To prevent them from plotting escape the landlord’s managers separated the females from the males, not allowing them to see each other for months at a stretch. Kohli narrates that she was guarded vigilantly around the clock, and despite being engaged was prevented from being married as the landlord did not want to lose her as a worker. During this time she was raped repeatedly, resulting in her giving birth to 3 sons out of wedlock. By the time she was finally freed through the High Court orders under section 491 CrPC, she had turned 37 and the men who had raped her refused to acknowledge her sons as their offspring.
This issue of bonded labour has been in existence in Pakistan for several decades. Although more than 3 million bonded labourers have been freed to date, our government and social institutions have failed to take any solid steps in settling this issue. The Constitution of Pakistan, CrPC, United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ILO’s international conventions- are all anti-slavery. In particular, the ILO’s Convention 29 has been named as “Forced Labour Convention 1930” to which Pakistan is a signatory. It lays down minute details of the ways to tackle the bonded labour issue, from the abolition of bonded labour to the future treatment of erstwhile bonded labourers. It also makes the exaction of bonded labour a penal offence for which adequate punishment has to be strictly enforced by the government.
In spite of this why does the state machinery not take any action against the exaction of bonded labour in Pakistan? Is it because the victims are not influential, or their financial and social standing is low, or because the overwhelming majority of bonded labourers are non-Muslim?
Most Haris living in camps are indigenous dwellers of Sindh and Punjab who have lived there for thousands of years and are affiliated with the agricultural sector. Therefore their only source of livelihood is farming. Driving these farmers out of their lands to rid them of bonded labour and thus bringing their lives to a standstill is no viable and permanent solution to this long-standing problem.
The government needs to ensure that the working relations between the Haris and landlords are just enough so the Haris do not need to escape from their own farms. Providing them with this security will allow them to apply their farming knowledge and agricultural expertise to the benefit of the country and enable them to work to their fullest potential without any fear, instead of having to sit idly in Hari camps. All this will not only make Pakistan progress, but will also serve to increase revenue for the country. Our agriculture sector must be truly turned into and thus declared a bonded labour-free zone so that our reputation improves internationally. In this way we will have better trading relations with the rest of the world and be able to market our local goods in global markets. Closing our eyes to problems will not conceal the reality from our nation and the rest of the world.
In this fast-progressing world, Pakistan now has some 4 million people living in bonded labour, as consistent criminal negligence and denial of this grave issue by successive governments has only served to increase the number of bonded labourers. The Government of Pakistan, all political parties and democratic institutions including the media and other forums have a major responsibility to play their due role in rooting out the menace of bonded labour.
All progressive citizens of Pakistan who are against the subhuman practice of slavery need to come forward to help permanently put an end to this issue. We all must work together to eradicate this prevailing shameful problem in which millions of our countrymen and women are trapped.