08/09/2014 09:04 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 05:59 GMT

The Unmentionables

A road that runs down the spine of Jimlahalli, Karnataka, divides the village in two. At one end sits a cluster of fifty concrete houses, most with two stories, some three, and all with motorbikes sitting outside. At the other, ninety mud-huts bask in the heat, sometimes a cow roams in the entrance, as small children play in the open sewers running down the edge of the road, white with government disinfectant.

In the middle are a few shops, for tea, petrol, rice, and grain. Each has a front and back entrance. Those who live in the mud huts are not allowed in the front entrance. They are barred also from the village well, and must walk a few miles to draw water from the local river. Jimlahalli is divided, between the Dalits and the rest.

This division is not always so visible, but it pervades Indian society. Newspapers in India, like Britain, describe 'populist' government policies aimed at the 'middle class'. These people dwell in the concrete houses. But there are fifty concrete houses and ninety mud huts; in India the 'middle class' are the top 35 percent.


At around 5am, the mud-hutters set to work. Most work in the fields, whilst others clean the sewers, build houses, or wipe the toilets inside the cool, concrete houses. Many owe their 'employer' thousands of rupees and earn around 50 rupees (46 pence) a day to pay off their debt. If they are sick or their children need looking after, their debt increases.

The word employer is in inverted commas because these people are not employees but slaves. This is not my judgment, but that of both Indian and international law. Under the former, any debtor who has, or is presumed to have, entered into an agreement with a creditor and renders any service to the benefit of the creditor is a slave. In other words, if the mud-hutters take a loan from those living across the street and must work to pay off that loan then they are slaves.

The mud-hutters are not a small, marginalised group. Around 250 million Dalits live in India today; formerly titled the untouchables, as others cannot have any contact with anything a Dalit has touched. As of 2013, roughly 80 percent of Dalits live in rural areas, villages like Jimlahalli. Of these, about 75 percent are divided between Dalit areas and the rest. That's 150 million mud-hutters.


Every one of the slaves I have spoken to in the last two months has been a Dalit. Most do not own any land, have a bank account or toilet, and the majority cannot read or write. In its Dalits, India has a workforce who need not be paid the minimum wage, cannot understand their contracts, and are desperate for loans to pay for basic services the government theoretically provides for free.

"My father asked the master for a loan to pay for my medicine," explains Prasad pointing towards the concrete houses. "Ever since, my wife works in his house and I in his fields."

Prasad owes 20,000 rupees (about £100). He has worked for 22 years to pay off this debt, earning fifty rupees a day (about 46 pence). It is not difficult to work out that Prasad paid off his debt, assuming no interest, after less than two years. As I perform these calculations on the back of a curry-stained paper plate, a painful recognition spreads across his dark face.

Siddharth Kara, an expert on bonded labour, estimates that around 12 million men and women are caught in bonded labour in India. Around 90 percent are Dalits.

For one thing, these numbers amount to wasted potential. A population roughly half that of Western Europe is frequently denied a minimum wage and the basic services required for a productive life, such as a toilet. Worse, a population equivalent to Sweden's is kept in servitude.

It is India itself who has much to lose by denying these men and women the possibility of realizing their potential. Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics at Harvard, argues that if people do not have the basic conditions required to realize their potential, the economy in which they live and work suffers. There is no greater denial of human potential than servitude.


The mud-hutters in Jimlahalli have never met a journalist. With some notable exceptions, it is difficult to find stories in the Indian (or indeed Western) media about unappealing basic conditions of life, or indeed servitude. To enquire into someone's caste is a faux-pas.

Caste has become a taboo. Its relation to labour and in particular slavery goes virtually unquestioned; an uncomfortable conversation over chai or at a cocktail party. This does not contribute to the gradual erosion of stigma, it stifles discussion and a recognition of the basic living conditions of India's Dalits.

Prasad burps and lights his bidi, sitting outside his hut as night falls. He scratches his nose, and a smile creeps across his wrinkled face.

"Perhaps we will organise a strike; demand that the master shows us our papers. We will be beaten for sure, but I know my master has a heart somewhere."