Bonded by Caste and Gender: The Feminization of Poverty in Rural India

Author(s): Dr. Rukmini Rao
Date Published: July 16, 2006

Dr. Rukmini Rao,
Director, Deccan Development Society,
A#6, Meera Apartments, Basheerbagh,
Hyderabad, 500029, India.


A prevailing patrilinear culture, taken to its extremes by the barbarous practices of child marriage, and female foeticide and infanticide, is commonly blamed for the feminization of poverty in the world's second most populous country, India. A 1996 investigation in the Medak district of the state of Andhra Pradesh demonstrates that the inherent untouchability of the caste system, together with the corruption of bonded labour, are prominent features of the destitution faced by India's rural communities. Importantly, while bonded labour is perceived to exploit men and boys, it also creates a politically and economically invisible bondage for women and their daughters which exacerbates their poverty-related burdens.

Like female foeticide and infanticide, bonded labour is prohibited by Indian legislation. In the past, bondage, or Jeetham, was closely tied to the feudal "Jajmani" system, and often passed from one generation down to the next. Since 1976, the year when the Bonded Labour System [Abolition] Act was enacted, a National Survey indicated that the majority of bonded labourers were landless, 66 per cent coming from Scheduled Castes, and 18 per cent from Scheduled Tribes . In social terms, the National Survey confirmed the bondage vulnerability of communities contending with economic deprivation and continual degradation. A simultaneous Government Blue Print for the Rehabilitation of Freed Bonded Labourers established strategies for workers to escape the psychological and financial treadmill of their bondage. Nonetheless, 20 years further on, despite the fiscal assistance supplied by the Government's own poverty alleviation programmes, the economically and socially vulnerable of rural India remain prey to the sharks of bondage.


Between July and September 1996, a team from the Deccan Development Society conducted a rapid survey to obtain details of the history, incidence, and reasons for child and adult bondage in the Medak district, which like the Mahabubnagar and Ranga Reddy districts in the Telangana region, suffers from recurrent drought and minimal investment in agriculture and industry. The following table provides details of the caste background of 533 children and 783 adults who were found to be in bondage during the course of the survey in 55 villages:

1996 Child and Adult Bondage in the Medak District according to Constitutionally-defined Caste

The table clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of socially and economically disadvantaged communities to bondage, with 99 per cent, practically the entire total, of bonded labour in the district coming from the underprivileged groups which are constitutionally-defined as Scheduled Caste [75.8 per cent] and Backward Caste [23.2 per cent]. Notably, in a district devoid of significant Scheduled Tribe populations, bondage within Scheduled Castes in the Medak district exceeded the National Survey figure of 66 per cent by a further 9.8 per cent.
During the survey, most adults reported that they were entering bondage for the first time, as was the situation for approximately one in every four bonded children. Adult bondage was of longest duration, frequently exceeding 10 years, and in one instance reaching 40 years. Children began Jeetham when aged as young as six years for somewhat shorter periods which, nonetheless, extended from one to as many as six years. Despite the successful rehabilitation of thousands of bonded in the region, extrapolation from the survey figures indicates that yet another 21,000 [9,000 children and 12,000 adults] remain to be liberated from old and new bondage contracts in the Medak district alone.

Stark poverty, where a consumption loan avoided hunger and its consequences, was a major reason for child and adult bondage, as were poverty-related issues, where a cash loan met the debt arising from family ill-health or death, housing construction, land development/irrigation, animal purchases, or a marriage dowry. Indifferent to the reason[s] for bondage, contracts raised fluctuating, but invariably meager amounts of cash, which in relation to adults appeared to be village-specific. In general, bearing in mind that the minimum annual wage for an eight hour day in the Medak district is Rs. 12,000 [$US345], the majority of children were bonded for sub-award wages of between Rs.1000 - 1500 [$US28-43] per year. Teenage and adult bondage went similarly underpaid, with annual wages ranging from Rs.2500 - 6000 [$US70 - 170].


Despite legislation prohibiting bonded labour, and the Deccan Development Society's recent campaign against bondage in the Medak district, the system not only persists, but thrives. Undoubtedly, the continuing prevalence of bonded labour in districts like Medak can be traced to the government's defensive paradigm of development, as evidenced from lucrative investment handed out to the delta regions of Andhra Pradesh for agricultural and industrial development, whereas Medak and other drought-stricken districts in the state remain neglected. Additionally, partly due to the lack of basic education, and partly due to the absence of technical training, there is a high level of youth unemployment throughout the region. In turn, unemployment has forced a rising number to eke a living from already subsistent land, with the dual effect that the land is continually subjected to ongoing degradation, and agricultural wages have taken a downward slide. On this background, the communities in the district, principally the landless, rely heavily on bondage agreements with their local landlords, viewing contracts as philanthropic credit to meet their financial emergencies. To a large extent, villagers feared that a new drive against bondage might rekindle the violence and harassment which accompanied campaigns of the 1970s, and, at the same time, would leave them destitute when confronted with future financial disasters.

In general, communities recognized the unfair labour relations in bondage, but failed to fully understand the overwhelming structural abuse created by the system. As an example, in the extensively prevalent three to four year bondage strategy adopted to deal with various monetary short-falls, bonded labourers are paid, at best, approximately 50 per cent less, and, at worst, more than 90 per cent less than the Rs. 12,000 minimum annual wage of the district. Moreover, while the district's minimum wage is awarded for an eight hour working day, bonded labourers, both adult and child, toil for between 14 and 16 hours of their day. Research from other areas has highlighted the serious nutritional problems of bonded children. Accordingly, most of the bonded children in Medak displayed the physical signs of undernourishment, reflecting both the poverty of their families, and the impact of sheer hard labour on their young bodies.

Finally, while the nature of bondage has altered from the transgenerational practices of the past, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, like the caste culture, the perpetual wage discrimination against women plays an important role in the modern bondage story. In the Medak district, where the official minimum wage is Rs. 32 [$US1.00] per day, women receive only Rs. 10 or 30 cents daily, or, put differently, approximately 70 per cent less than their entitlement. Like unpaid domestic labour, gender discriminatory wages cheat women out of their full earning potential, and, by robbing them and their family of crucial income, increase the entire family's vulnerability to bondage.


Along with the World Bank, the Indian Government has acknowledged the downsides of its New Economic Policies, and the Structural Adjustment Programmes, admitting that a safety net is essential for marginalized populations. In the face of class and caste oppression, India's poor in general, and women in particular, are further marginalized by underdevelopment, unemployment, untouchability, and/or landlessness. At this point in time, trapped within the vicious circles of poverty, bondage is the solitary safety net known to marginalized communities in rural India.

Back in 1976, anti-bondage legislation was deemed radical, but the Blue Print on Rehabilitation was thought to contain sustainable answers to the complex underlying issues. Twenty years down the track, the immorality of Jeetham still prevails in rural India. While deep-rooted rudimentary problems may have contributed in a minor way to the continuing presence of bondage, the foundation for the flourishing bonded labour market can be found elsewhere; first, in the government's failure to enforce its own ban on bonded labour; second, in a Blue Print which overlooked, or ignored, the crucial right to livelihood which in itself is dependent on improving marginalized agriculture and wastelands, and enforcing minimum wage awards; and third, with bureaucracy's whitewash of present-day bondage as just another form of contract labour. Plainly, rural India's freedom from bondage rests heavily on amending the flaws within this paradigm; government commitment, publicized across print and electronic media, to meet serfdom with the same letter of the law that is applied to punish any other form of crime; an expanded Blue Print, incorporating comprehensive rights to livelihood into the focus on human and legal rights; and a clear-cut administrative consensus that bondage contracts are rendered null and void by both their innate unlawfulness and corrupt labour relations.

Compounded by unemployment, malnourishment, and sickness, India's integration into the Global Economy has backlashed disastrously on ecologically fragile regions such as the Deccan Plateau. Government pricing policies and encouragement of high-input, export cash crops, notably sugarcane and cotton, have further impoverished both communities and the environment, as evidenced from the human impact of a thriving slavery market and a worsening food crisis, and the environmental consequences of harmful pesticides and a depleted water table. On this background, the increased vulnerability of the poor to debt-related bondage has created a less visible, but nonetheless two tiered bondage for women. Encircled by gender and caste discrimination from birth, women from the Medak district toil still harder to feed their families on the scant cash fetched by adult and child bondage. Confronting wage discrimination, bondage at the first level brings women overwork, illhealth, and low mobility. At a second level, overwhelmed by their bondage-related burdens, women turn to their daughters, overtaxing them with housework, childcare, and various domestic labours such as fuel and fodder collection. These same issues also have a detrimental influence on the educational opportunities given to girls, as it is the daughters, rather than sons, of bonded labourers who are forced to exchange school for debt-reducing employment .

A change in the paradigm of development, like that necessary to halt the immorality of slavery, is overdue. To this day, women continue to pay dearly for the abject failure of defensive government policies, but as elsewhere, women from the Medak district are proudly rising to change their lives. Government support is essential, frankly in the shape of aggressive strategies for inclusive social justice, designed to deliver a meaningful existence and sense of well being to each member of any and every community.