The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976
The Parliament enacted The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, to end the practice of bonded labour across the country and free people from various kinds of bonded labour. The law also sought to prevent the physical and economic exploitation of the marginalised.
Offences punishable under the Act include enforcing bonded labour, advancing bonded debt, extracting bonded labour, and not restoring property to freed bonded labourers. The Act also highlights the need to rehabilitate bonded labourers and ensure that they are not pushed into such labour again.
The role of state authorities and district-level vigilance committees is crucial in implementing the law and in monitoring the situation on the ground. The Act says that people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be appointed to these district-level vigilance committees.
What does this Act entail?
This Act abolishes the bonded labour system across India and relieves every bonded labourer of his/her obligation to do this kind of labour. It also makes void any agreement, custom or tradition by which a person or his/her dependant can be forced to do any kind of bonded labour.
What does the Act say about ‘bonded debt’?
Bonded debt is an advance given to a labourer on the condition that he/she perform some kind of forced labour. The Act makes null any requirement of bonded labourers to repay bonded debt.
Under the Act, any movable property that may have been forcibly taken from a bonded labourer or his/her dependant in lieu of bonded debt must be returned to him/her. The Act also prohibits ‘creditors’ (or those enforcing bonded labour) from accepting any payment against bonded debt.
How does the Act penalise offenders?
Anyone who forces a person into bonded labour can be imprisoned for up to three years along with a fine up to Rs. 2,000. This includes offences such as advancing bonded debt and encouraging caste-based practices that force people to do bonded labour. The Act also frees up the mortgaged property of bonded labourers and ensures that they are not evicted from their homes.
Who must implement the provisions of this Act?
State governments must ensure that district magistrates (DMs) implement the Act on the ground. The DM and officers under his/her charge must conduct local inquiries to find out if any instances of bonded labour still exist. They must also help protect the economic interests of bonded labourers and promote their welfare, so that they are not pushed into bondage again.
What are district-level vigilance committees?
District-level vigilance committees, comprising social workers and members of SC/ST communities, shall provide economic and social rehabilitation to bonded labourers. The committees coordinate with rural banks and cooperative societies to arrange credit for freed bonded labourers. They also monitor offences under the Act and defend freed bonded labourers (and their family members) in cases filed against them for the recovery of bonded debt.
Who must prove that a debt is not bonded debt?
The onus of proving that a debt is not bonded debt lies with the ‘creditor’, who has enforced bonded labour on someone.
What does the Act say about offences committed by companies?
When an offence under this Act is committed by a company, every person who conducted business for the company at the time the offence was committed can be held guilty and penalised.
Focus and Factoids by Ritwika Mitra.
Ministry of Law and Justice
Government of India, New Delhi
09 Feb, 1976