Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit Biographies

Courtesy of Anti-Slavery International

Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit have been working to free bonded labourers in India for more than 20 years. A husband and wife team, they work to develop support organisations for current and former bonded labourers.

The Pandits have devoted their lives to the realisation of human rights in the subcontinent and have, after decades of work, succeeded in changing the perceptions and practices of many in the state of Maharashtra. More than 1,500 bonded labourers in Thane District and other parts of the state have been freed and none has returned to the bonded labour system.

They have set up three integrated organisations based in Thane District which operate throughout Maharashtra, creating a framework which first liberates the bonded labourer and then ensures that he/she can lead a free life: Vidhayak Sansad, set up in 1979, identifies and releases bonded labourers; Shramajeevi Sanghatana, a trade union for former bonded labourers and other marginalised groups founded in 1982, secures equal and fair wages for men and women; and Samarthan, formed in 1993, lobbies state officials for the development and implementation of legislation against this system of enslavement.

The Pandits' system for releasing a bonded labourer is not dramatic. Statements are taken, forms are filled in, and the case is filed at a police station; from that point the labourer is free. More often than not, it is successfully proven that instead of those in bondage owing the landlord money, it is the landlord who owes the labourers.

The Pandits believe that in order for bonded labourers to be truly free, they must be released from the psychological bonds as well as the physical. They must be made to believe that it is possible to stand up to their former landlords and to adjust to a life of freedom. As Vidyullata Pandit says "the three most important things people need to fight bonded labour are knowledge of the law, self-confidence to bring about change, and ... conviction to ensure they don't go back to bonded labour once they are released." To ensure this, the Pandits' rural development agency, Vidhayak Sansad provides them with a rigorous training programme.

Vivek and Vidyullata have devised a programme of education which prepares the former bonded labourers for a life of freedom. They are taught basic science to increase their curiosity and attention for detail; role-play to stimulate problem solving; and games to develop strategic thinking and teamwork. Those who want to become active in the trade union receive further training.

Former bonded labourers work in all three organisations. The Pandits aim to make them self-sufficient and active in freeing other bonded labourers. Former bonded labourers also serve on village councils in the towns where they once worked as bonded labourers. According to Vivek Pandit, "organising is possible only when people get back their sense of self-esteem and are ready to demand their rights. People have to fight for their rights, nobody will give them rights on asking."

The Pandits organise and mobilise through peaceful and cooperative means to ensure their work is successful and sustainable. They maintain constructive links with the police and seek to inform landlords. Although the police of Maharashtra support the Pandits, they continue to meet resistance from most landlords. There are a few who have acknowledged the injustice of the system and have implemented fair working conditions.

The Pandits philosophy is based on self-worth. They teach bonded labourers that they have the same value as any other member of society, that no human being deserves to be exploited and oppressed. By providing these structures, the Pandits have enabled former bonded labourers to break free from the cycle of bonded labour.