Fighting Bonded Labor in Rural India: Village Activist Gyarsi Bai Tackles an Entrenched System of Coercion
A suite of 3 Video Shorts is an integral part of the case study. It features short interviews with Gyarsi Bai, the case protagonist, as well as three former bonded laborers. In October 2010, the beating of a 30-year-old bonded laborer-his punishment for staying home sick from work-in India's northwestern state of Rajasthan triggered a movement to end the practice of bonded labor in the area. A holdover from feudal times, bonded labor was outlawed in India in 1976, but was still prevalent in some pockets of rural India. Entrenched power systems protected the practice, with the lower castes most affected. In this case, the bonded workers were members of an indigenous tribe called the Sahariyas. The case explores the negotiating strategy used by Sahariya village activist Gyarsi Bai and her allies to fight a powerful landowning community and a local government administration unresponsive to appeals from the poor. It describes how Bai built coalitions with larger activist groups and worked with them to gain media visibility and secure support at the state and national levels. These alliances pressured village authorities to make changes. Two years later, bonded labor continued to exist in the area, but a growing number of laborers had sought and received official freedom. In addition, a set of modest options-a local grain bank, village-run system of microcredit, and an expanded government work guarantee-gave bonded laborers viable alternatives to the debt trap of the past. The case also shows how larger activist groups were effective at finding strategies that enabled the Sahariyas to be agents for their own change.