Two of her sons lay dead; her other three children were terrified. What choice remained? A wage dispute had come to this – and now Soomri Bheel found herself walking with her family across 300 kilometres of Pakistan’s Thar desert to what she hoped would be some kind of safety. Members of a Hindu minority in Pakistan’s strongly Muslim Umerkot in Sindh Province, close to the border with India, they were uneducated, poor and the victims of pervasive racial stigma. They’d had to accept what opportunities they could.
For more than a year the family had worked as farmhands for a wealthy landlord, sowing and harvesting cotton, onions and soya. Yet throughout this time no wages had changed hands. They became desperate.
They had challenged their employer and been told, to their astonishment, that not only were they owed nothing, they actually owed him living costs to the order of €1,000 [£800]. What then started as a heated argument between her husband and the landlord, swiftly led to two of her sons lying bleeding to death in the sand, the landlord’s son having fired the shots that turned an immense injustice into a heartbreaking tragedy.
Now they only had one option left – escape. They took to the desert and started to walk. Five days later, having only eaten once (on the third day when some sugar cane workers took pity on them), they arrived in the village of Azadnagar. They had heard rumours of this village near the city of Hyderabad where they could stay and be safe.
In Urdu, Azadnagar means ‘Village of the Freed’.
According to the Walk Free Foundation’s 2013 Global Slavery Report, Pakistan has the third largest number of enslaved people in the world (behind India and China), and the third highest prevalence of slavery (behind Mauritania and Haiti).
Modern slavery takes many forms, including debt bondage, forced marriage, the sale of children, human trafficking and forced labour. The report estimates that almost 30 million people globally are enslaved in one of these ways – two thirds of them in Asia. For most people, the chance of being enslaved is miniscule, but in a country such as Pakistan, with its large numbers of displaced people, political instability, extreme poverty, weak rule of law and its porous border with Afghanistan, the possibility increases greatly.
Debt bondage, one of the most prevalent contemporary forms of slavery, is particularly extensive. The issue is most acute in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, where the brick kiln and sugar cane industries are the worst exploiters.
There are an estimated 5,000 kilns in Punjab, with 173 around Azadnagar alone. A 2004 survey of the province’s kilns by the Federal Bureau of Statistics found that nearly 90 per cent of workers were bonded. A separate study by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research found the numbers to be upwards of one million.
SCARED TO ACT
Yet despite the prevalence of debt bondage in Pakistan – estimates range from 1.7 million to more than three million people affected – there’s little help for the victims. This fact alone makes the work of Ghulam Hyder, director of the Green Rural Development Organisation, so important.
A patient, likeable man with a warm smile, Hyder knows what it feels like to be poor. The son of a peasant farmer, he grew up in a rural Sindhi village among bonded-labourers, listening to their stories and seeing the effects the system had on their families. What he saw and heard determined the trajectory of his life.
After working as an activist to implement the Tenancy Laws during the 1980s, he founded GRDO in 1997. Originally working on development projects in rural villages throughout Sindh Province, in 2003 it shifted its focus to reducing bonded slavery after Action Aid – a British NGO that has worked in Pakistan since 1992 – offered Hyder funding to tackle the issue. Action Aid’s reasoning was simple: if Hyder and GRDO didn’t do it, no-one would.
This remains a problem today. ‘It’s such a controversial subject that most NGOs worry it will affect their projects focusing on other issues of village life,’ explains Hyder in his office in Hyderabad. ‘Landlords are very powerful people, so international and domestic NGOs are often scared to get involved.’
Even the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act – enacted in 1992, after a constitutional amendment that requires all provincial governments to legislate anti-bonded labour laws – has failed to stop the practice. In fact, Anti-Slavery International estimates that between 1989 and 2006, a mere 8,530 bonded labourers were freed. Of these, only 563 were released by the government; the rest were the result of joint actions between NGOs and the labourers themselves.
In an effort to break the cycle, GRDO dipped into its own funds to purchase two plots of land – each around two hectares in size and located roughly 30 minutes from Hyderabad – and began constructing villages on them. The simple one-room houses, fashioned out of mud and straw, look like most other rural homes in the province.
However, the villages are for the exclusive use of freed slaves. ‘They must have their own land so that no-one can evict them and they have peace of mind,’ says Hyder. ‘The rescued slaves in these villages are the most unfortunate, those who have no-one. But now, if a new family arrives, the other villagers will provide them with basic food and help until they get settled.’
For husband and wife Ponuno and Choti Bheel, who’ve lived in Azadnagar for five years with their nine children, this was the only place they could go. They had borrowed 5,000 rupees [£50] from a landlord, but after a month of toiling in his fields, the debt had swelled to 250,000 rupees [£2,400]. They were told that they must work for another two years in order to repay the debt.
As those two years were coming to an end, a relative died of tuberculosis. Instead of allowing the family to perform their traditional Hindu funeral rites, the landlord dumped the body in a river. Enraged, they told the landlord that they were leaving. He responded by kidnapping the entire family, along with another 74 members of their extended family. They were chained up separately – the women in one building, the men in another and the children in another. ‘To remember which key could be used on which padlock, he numbered them, and wrote the number on our clothes,’ explains Choti, as she sits outside her house in Azadnagar.
They were imprisoned for almost three months. Eight girls – all around eight years of age – were gang raped, including her daughter. To stop the younger children from crying, they were given tranquillisers such as diazepam, which led to the deaths of three.
Finally, the police came and, with the help of GRDO, the family was released and brought to Azadnagar. The landlord, however, apparently avoided arrest by paying billions of rupees to the police and court officials.
Sadly, the Bheels’ story is just one of many equally horrifying tales. There are even reports of labourers being forced to sell their organs to pay off their debt, only to be forced to return to the same landlord when they are unable to make money elsewhere.
Of all the activists who’ve fought this system, Veeru Kohli is by far the best known. Born into poverty in eastern Sindh Province, she married into a bonded-slave family when she was young.
Confused as to why her family’s loan kept increasing, she borrowed money from a relative, cleared the debt and moved to work in another district with another landlord. This one turned out to be even worse. Her entire family was harassed and guarded 24 hours a day by armed men. Her husband was regularly beaten.
One day in the mid-1990s, she ran away to raise yet more money to free her family. When the landlord refused to release anyone, she went to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Hyderabad. As a result, more than 40 bonded labourers, including her family, were released.
While working with GRDO, she began to learn about the Pakistani judicial system, and although she still works as a labourer, harvesting crops, she also helps to facilitate new cases. In 2013, she became the first ex-slave to stand as an independent candidate in Hyderabad’s provincial election.
This act not only made history but also raised awareness of the terrible conditions that her people suffer. On the asset declaration form required for every candidate, Kohli listed two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and life savings of 2,800 rupees [£28].
As her popularity grew, so did the dirty tactics employed against her. She was threatened and harassed throughout her campaign. When another candidate attempted to pay her off, her reply was simple. ‘I am standing for my people,’ she told him. ‘I don’t need your money. Until I die, I will fight because I won’t leave them alone.’
With growing awareness comes hope of an end to bonded slavery. ‘The inequality in Pakistan has reached such a level that it now cannot sustain itself and cannot continue,’ says Hyder.
Many people in the developed world see slavery as a scar on humanity’s history, unaware of the scale of its modern incarnation. But with millions of people around the world still bound by financial – and sometimes even physical – restraints, it will require the efforts of many more tireless campaigners such as Hyder and Kohli to truly consign slavery to the past.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine