MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three years after India said it would increase state compensation for slavery survivors, not one has received the full amount, new data show, as campaigners warn that thousands are being forced back into debt bondage.
In 2016, the Indian government set a target of rescuing 18 million workers from bondage by 2030 and increased the amount of compensation survivors would get by more than 10 times to help them avoid falling back into debt.
Three years on, thousands are estimated to have been rescued. But just 500 have had the initial payment of 20,000 Indian rupees ($290) they are eligible for on their release and no one has received the full amount, calculations by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show.
India outlawed bonded labour four decades ago, but unscrupulous employers still dupe people from marginalised communities into working without pay in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to pay off debts.
“More than 60 percent of the workers we rescue are in bondage again, or are working in slave-like conditions,” said Nirmal Gorana, convenor of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour.
“It is tragic that the government has the money, but it hasn’t reached the survivors.
“We have rescued 700-800 people on average every year since three years. So what about the other cases? This spending is too little to help anyone.”
Much of the 250 million rupees allocated for compensation over the last three years has been spent on clearing a backlog of old cases, according to data submitted in parliament.
Nearly 11,000 people rescued from bondage before the 2016 system was introduced have received about 5,000 rupees each.
Another problem is that survivors are only entitled to claim full compensation once their employer has been convicted - and that can take years.
The national director general of labour welfare Ajay Tiwari said the government was aware of the problem and was considering changes that would enable victims to get more compensation without having to wait for a conviction.
“We are well aware of the situation and we need to make legal changes,” said Tiwari, adding that the slow pace of cases through India’s courts was part of the problem.
“We have gone through deliberations to do something about it.”
India says 300,000 people have been pulled out of slavery since 1976, though no data is available for the number rescued since it introduced the 2016 policy.
The lack of compensation leaves tens of thousands of slavery survivors vulnerable when they return to their villages because they struggle to find enough work, forcing them to take out loans, campaigners say.
Three years after they were rescued from a construction site in the north Indian city of Ghaziabad where they were held in bondage for four months, Jagdish Ahirwal, 32, and his wife have still not had a single rupee in compensation.
They should have received 20,000 rupees each to tide them over until their employer is convicted.
Ahirwal will then be entitled to 100,000 rupees and his wife 200,000 rupees under the new rules, which provide greater compensation for women, children and transgender people.
But they cannot claim any compensation without an official release certificate, which they are still waiting for.
“I had a loan of 8,000 rupees to repay when I went to work in Ghaziabad with my family,” said Ahirwal, now back in his home village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
“I have struggled to survive the last three years. My wife and children roll beedis (traditional cigarettes) and I take up odd jobs. But if, God forbid, there is a big expense, I may have to take a loan again.”
Officials say they have to verify claims of bondage before they can issue the certificate that entitles people to claim the initial compensation, known as interim relief.
The full amount is even more elusive as convictions remain rare.
Campaigners including Gorana have challenged the link between conviction and compensation, and officials say they are trying to come up with solutions.
Tina Jacob, associate director of the International Justice Mission which rescues people from slavery in India, said the new scheme had the potential to protect thousands of people from bondage - but only if they could access funds swiftly.
“When bonded labourers are rescued, they are in a shambles,” said Jacob. “They should get aid within the first 30 days, or they just become vulnerable again.”
($1 = 69.1460 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org