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The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay

By Shilpi Gupta

The pounding sun blisters bare dark skin, scorches the ground, and even boils water—although it is still only spring in Chennai. Its relentless glare already makes eyes sting, and summer is yet to come.

Sathya, 11, and Manakandan, 12, must toil in the heat of tropical Tamil Nadu, India, moving across the scalding pavement of "nerkalams," or rice drying units, barefoot to help their family prepare rice for local processing mills. But the ground, layered with the sizzling grains, no longer fazes them as their feet have already been singed with calluses.
They are two amongst the thousands of children who slave in Chennai’s nerkalams from dawn until dusk instead of attending school. Their parents, bonded laborers, depend on their labor to help pay the debt incurred to loan sharks.

Debt bondage—when a loan requires a person, family and often heirs to work for another—has been defined by the United Nations as a

form of modern day slavery, a practice internationally outlawed. The Indian central government has also adamantly outlawed debt servitude, enacting countless laws and policies to eliminate its existence. But with the power relegated to the state level, such laws are rarely enforced.

"Slavery-like practices may be clandestine," according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Fact Sheet on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. "The problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out."

Sathya and Manakandan’s parents were not always indebted in servitude. Vinayagam and Chinnapapa only moved to the Red Hills on the outskirts of Chennai when, after a poor monsoon season, their farm in rural Tamil Nadu failed to yield adequate harvests, causing them to fall into debt and sell their small landholdings. At the time, Sathya and Manakandan, in the second and third grades, respectively, excelled at their studies. But during the rainy season, in order to make ends meet, Vinayagam and Chinnapapa were forced to borrow money, thus ending their family’s freedom.

The conditions of the loan, which requires the family to work at the loan shark’s rice mill, offer little hope of release from the burden of their debt, explained George Heston, a social service worker with the Chennai based NGO, Jeeva Jyothi. Heston says the government denies the practice’s continued existence.

Chinnapapa explained through a translator that it usually takes her family three days to finish 27 bags of rice, working from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. First, the unprocessed rice soaks in water boiled under the sun. Vinayagam and Manakandan immerse themselves in the water to separate the rice with men from three other families living at the mill. The family then spreads the grains over its allocated share of space, half the size of a tennis court. As the rice dries, they sift it thoroughly—both with a rake-like contraption and by walking across it barefoot, combing through the grains with their toes—and brush it into neat lines with a straw broom. Finally, they gather the rice in big piles under burlap sacks to dry further in the heat of the sun. Then, they repeat the process.

For each bag, the family makes 32 Indian rupees, about 80 cents. Sixty percent of their income pays the debt, said Chinnapapa. The lender takes the other 40 percent for the family’s room and board. Meanwhile, the loan also accrues interest, causing them to accumulate more debt—creating an endless cycle of bonded servitude.

The children sporadically attended Jeeva Jyothi’s tutorial courses, and the organization eventually convinced their parents to send them to school again. In the 1999 edition of its publication, "A Child’s Voice," Sathya described her excitement over her father’s permission. "I hope he will not change his mind after my admission. I will be the happiest person in the world if I go to school," she wrote.

But her brother, Manakandan, was thought to have more potential for schooling, and without his hands, Sathya’s labor was indispensable. Her father was forced to recant.
Families in the Red Hills are not alone in their plight. The United Nations’ Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, acknowledging the difficulty in obtaining reliable data, reported that organizations’ estimates suggest as many as 44 to 100 million persons live in debt bondage in India alone.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights maintains, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

Yet this year the International Labor Organization, a subdivision of the United Nations, documented the progression of bonded labor in its annual report, titled "Stopping Forced Labor." In 1978-79, NGOs estimated over 2.6 million bonded laborers in 10 Indian states surveyed. In 1995, the Supreme Court received a report by the Commission on Bonded Labor in Tamil Nadu estimating 1.25 million bonded laborers in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. Additionally, some organizations estimated 65 million children are living in a similar condition.

In a later edition of "A Child’s Voice," Sathya described her love of drawing, studying, playing and singing. "But I don’t have time for that," she wrote. "I have to be with my father and mother to contribute my share of income."





Workers, bonded in debt to owners of a nerkalam, slave under the sweltering tropical sun in the Red Hills district outside of Chennai, India to prepare rice for processing. When Manakandan is not at school, he helps his family prepare the rice.



The men separate the rice from the boiling water. Standing in one tank, they lift bushels of rice, drain the water, and throw the drenched grains on a pile in an adjoining tank.




Sathya and Manakadan spread the boiled rice to dry on the pavement.


Kummaravel, 12, "rakes" the rice grains with his father.



Kummaravel brushes the rice into neat piles with his broom


Vinayagam, Chinnapapa, and Sathya gather the rice grains to dry under burlap sacks in the sun.


While their parents dry the rice, young children must care for themselves in the unhealthy heat and dust of the nerkalams. Jeeva Jyothi says that ninety percent of the children they work with who are bonded laborers have serious malnutrition and ailments including acute diarrhea, skin discoloration and eye defects


After completing one cycle of the process, a father bathes himself and his son—a temporary relief from the heat.