By Rupal Kulkarni, CEO of Shram Sarathi, a partner of Aajeevika Bureau.
Shram Sarathi is a pioneering financial services institution working on financial inclusion of seasonal labour migrants and their families. For more information, please visit their website: www.shramsarathi.org and follow them on Twitter: @Shram_Sarathi
Nojaram felt trapped. A worker in his group had just been beaten up by the contractor for seeking a raise. He was going to do the same that morning, but wasn’t so sure anymore. Nojaram was a migrant from Rajasthan, working as a contractual worker on cooking assignments in Bhuj, Gujarat. Over three years ago, when his father-in-law fell extremely ill, he availed an advance of 15,000 rupees from his contractor. He was very grateful to his contractor because he received the money no-questions-asked and at zero interest. For two years however, he paid a heavy price for the advance…. he paid for it with his freedom. The contractor held him bonded at a wage of 6,000 rupees per month with no increments for over two years. There was a constant threat of physical abuse and when one of the workers’ was beaten up, Nojaram was scared to demand his freedom. No one in the village could lend him or his wife the money and the contractor insisted on a lumpsum repayment, knowing fully well that Nojaram was incapable of doing that.
Not too far away from where Nojaram lives, Mangilal Gameti, another migrant from Gogunda block had a similar story to share. Mangilal worked as a head loader migrating from Gogunda to Unjha, Gujarat earning 400-600 Rs. a day. In early 2017, he borrowed 4,800 rupees from a local moneylender to make urgent repairs to his house which was on the verge of collapsing. He was certain he would be able to pay back the amount within two months, however a sudden illness was the first in a series of unfortunate events. He was unable to work for several months while he recuperated. Since he was unable to pay back the amount in time, the money lender grabbed Mangilal’s bank passbook and Aadhaar card (the only documents in Mangilal’s possession) and refused to return the documents unless Mangilal agreed to work off his debt with unpaid labour. For several months, Mangilal was unable to migrate to Unjha and was forced to suffer the indignity of unpaid work for the moneylender.
These stories are not surprising. Finance has been used a tool to wield control and enslave people for centuries. In its contemporary forms, it is just as brutal, just as inhuman. In informal labour markets in India, withholding wages, keeping wages stagnant for years and denying access to dignified finance are nothing but modern slavery with a twist. These are just as dehumanizing and exploitative as conditions of physical bondage and abuse. However when narratives of financial exclusion are delinked from this context of informality and implicit control, we only make it more convenient for such forms of modern slavery to exist and perpetuate.
Calling it ‘slavery’ is important. Stories like that of Nojaram and Mangilal should shock us, startle us … but somehow they don’t. When I share their ordeals, people often tell me that Nojaram and Mangilal should have known better than to enter into financial arrangements with their contractors or money lenders. But the reality is that their choices are never really theirs. Abject poverty and oppression over generations, social distrust and devaluation of human labour creates a system where choices are not ‘free’. “Agency is not always clearly defined; there is a difference in the choices we make when we are in bondage and those we make when we are free” – a quote I saw on the walls of the slave lodge museum in South Africa that is so pertinent here. In a society that chooses to function only through the enslavement of others, one wonders if Nojaram and Mangilal would have different stories to tell if their choices were truly their own.* And this independence day, I would ruminate on my role as a financial service provider in enabling such choice and upholding freedom.
* Nojaram and Mangilal are both clients of Shram Sarathi. Nojaram was able to repay his contractor with a loan availed from Shram Sarathi. He now works with another contractor for a wage of Rs. 10,000 per month. Mangilal too repaid his loan to the moneylender, retrieved his documents and now migrates to Unjha once again.