Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

The term ‘Bonded Labor’ has been defined under section 2 (g) of the Bonded Labor system Abolition Act (hereinafter called the Act) according to which, a bonded labor is one who, by reason of his/her birth in any particular caste or community renders by him/herself or through any member of his/her family or any person dependent on him/her any labor or service to the creditor or for the benefit of the creditor, for a specified period or for an unspecified period, either without wages or for nominal wages.

Upper caste Hindus in Orissa have been forcing lower caste peoples like the Barbers and Washermen to do menial works sans remunerations they are entitled to for generations.

The barber caste peoples of Puri District under leadership of Human Rights Activists like Baghambar Pattanayak and Swati Sucharita have, under the banner of Orissa Goti Mukti Andolan, been agitating against this brutal exploitation and have been demanding justice under the Act since years.

Orissa government under Navin Patnaik has all along tried to repress the agitation. There are extensive reports in these pages that depict how Baghambar was thrown into the prison by this government without natural justice and trial for months together to suppress the agitation.

The upper caste peoples have harassed the agitating barbers in the District of Puri where Sri Jagannatha Buddha has been forcefully transformed to Sri Krishna Jagannatha by the perpetrators of caste apartheid. Their housed have been burnt down, women have been abused, older ones have been manhandled, properties have been looted and they, as a community, have been subjected to social boycotts as the barbers have refused to wash the feet of the so-called masters and clean their orts.

The practice in vogue in this particular District is that at a time of the year the upper caste families force the barbers to accept only six Gaunis (approximately 15kg) of paddy in advance of service for the year that includes shaving of all major mails and trimming of nails as often as needed. Even the women folks of the barbers are required to trim toe nails of the ladies of the masters’ families as and when so warranted. Over and above this, they are forced to wash the feet of visiting guests of the masters and to clean the orts the masters leave in their plates in festivals, family ceremonies and in funeral or any other social feasts. The meager amount of paddy they are given is known as Vartan and with that Vartan they are bound to render these services even in odd hours with no right to refuse to work and without any more remuneration for these services. The Vartan of the meager 15 kg of paddy that the barbers are given in advance of the services for the year suffices!

Besides being economically exploited, the barbers’ right to lead a dignified life is severely brutalized by this nasty practice.

To achieve their right to live as human beings belonging to a free sovereign democracy, the barbers of Puri District were to raise such a protests that the district administration, notwithstanding a catena of Collectors siding with the upper caste peoples, had to seek clarification from the State Government as to whether or not the barbers in their aforesaid situations could be termed as bonded labors and be entitled to remedies as provided for in the Act. This was unavoidable when the district Bonded Labor Vigilance Committee identified minimum 17 barbers as bonded labors as per definition of the term under the Act as cited supra.

The state government run by Navin Patnaik, in the department of Panchayatiraj, then under BJD’s incumbent Secretary General Damodar Raut, in consultation with law department and in terms of guidelines of Revenue department (both these departments are placed under Ministers belonging to BJP, the party of upper caste hegemony) clarified that the barbers and washermen working in rural areas “cannot be identified as bonded labors”.

Guided by this misguiding trick of the State Government, the Puri Collector after a stage managed open hearing on 7th January 2008 refused to accept the Committee observation for identification of 17 barbers as bonded labors.

The National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi has now nullified the Collecter’s orders in the matter of the 17 barbers who have been subjected to enforced labor without remuneration though out the year.

The system of Vartan envisages giving and taking of advance and thereby creates the relationship of debtor and creditor, the NHRC has ruled. On the premise of this ruling, the NHRC has further pronounced that the person accepting the Vartan is called a sewak and is forced to render the required service as he is such a sewak by reason of his birth in a particular caste or community and he is forced to render service for the whole year in consideration of the advance. This being the factual position, there can be no doubt that the practice of Vartan is a manifestation of the bonded labor system as defined under Section 2 (g) of the Act.

Therefore, the stand taken by the Panchayatiraj Department in its letter No.3364 dated 8 April 2004 is obviously erroneous, the NHRC has declared.

Thus saying, the NHRC has reminded the state Government of its constitutional duty to abolish such customs.

It must ensure that barbers and washermen in the villages receive appropriate remuneration for services rendered by them, by notifying minimum wages for them, the NHRC has directed Orissa government.

Hief minister Navin Patnaik’s only fort is his litany “Law will take its own course”. Now it is to be seen if Navin adopts the course of Law so cleanly and clearly indicated by the NHRC.

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