Fund crunch delays rescue of India's bonded labourers: activists

CHENNAI: India's plans to rescue more than 18 million bonded labourers by 2030 have been delayed by a lack of funds, activists said, calling for stricter law enforcement to end one of the most prevalent forms of human trafficking in the country.

A year after the Indian government announced a scheme to assist bonded labourers - including a fivefold increase in compensation for these exploited workers - many rescues have been postponed because funding has not come through, campaigners say.

The 1 million-rupee ($15,500) funds mandated for each district have not yet been created in southern India, according to Krishnan Kandasamy of the non-profit National Adivasi Solidarity Council, a network for indigenous peoples' welfare.

"The fallout has been that in many instances officials have declined to act on information and rescue workers - stating they do not have funds to pay," Kandasamy said.

Across India, villagers lured by traffickers with the promise of a good job and advance payments become trapped in bondage, forced to toil in fields or brick kilns, enslaved in brothels or confined as maids to pay off debt.

Under India's new regulations, in effect since May 2016, every rescued bonded labourer should be given 5,000 rupees ($78) as immediate assistance on the spot.

Because rescued bonded labourers often face delays in receiving compensation, India expanded the scheme's annual budget to 470 million rupees ($7 million) from 50 million rupees.

"State governments are expected to make the payments and reclaim the entire amount from us," said Rajit Punhani, a senior official in charge of labour welfare for India's Ministry of Labour and Employment. "In many instances, we are yet to receive any demand for funds."

Nearly two weeks ago, 31 workers, including 12 children, were rescued from a brick kiln on the outskirts of Bangalore, in southern Karnataka state.

The eight families, held in debt bondage at the kiln for up to eight months, were sent home to eastern Odisha state with just 1,000 rupees ($16) each - a fifth of what they are entitled to.

The reason cited by officials involved in the rescue was lack of funds.

Activists say 185 people have been rescued from bonded labour and trafficking in the Bangalore area since January, but most have not received compensation under the revised scheme.

Kodipalaya Krishnappa, an official overseeing the bonded labour scheme in Karnataka, said the state has asked the labour department for the funds and is trying to expedite the process.

More than a quarter of a million bonded labourers have received compensated since the earlier scheme was put in place in 1978, according to government data.

Activists blame official indifference for the payment delays.

"It is still seen as a 'poverty driven issue' or 'relic of the past'. Many miss the modern nature of the crime, which is often very violent," said Esther Daniels of the International Justice Mission, a non-governmental organisation working with governments to rescue and rehabilitate bonded labourers.