Nov 22, 2008

India - Widows sold as bonded labourers 100 kms from Bangalore

Rishikesh Bahadur Desai

TUMKUR/BANGALORE: If Bangalore has entered e-age, barely 100 km from the city stone-age practices still persist.

Unbelievable though it may sound, widows are treated like cattle, are 'bought and sold' in a custom treated as sacred by the 'Handi Koracha' community. Worse, local authorities well aware of the issue are not lifting a finger to help the victims of this de-humanising tradition.

Selling widows is a routine custom of the pig-rearing Kunchalu Koracha or Handi Korachas. The centuries-old 'Ruka' tradition is a norm with the community that lives in hamlets along the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border.
Widowed women thus sold, are used as bonded labourers to rear pigs or make brooms by their new owners.

They run errands and do menial household work. Of course, similar rules do not apply to men. Unfortunately most community members don't think of 'Ruka,'as evil and few victims protest.

"This is a common practice. Even today, women are bought and sold," Sunkappa, an elderly member of the community, told TOI. His sister Nagamma was sold by her in-laws four years ago. When this news hit the headlines, it created a sensation. The state government promised to help her and uplift the backward Handi Koracha community.

A caravan of officials descended on R Hosakote village September last. The villagers were promised free houses, loans and pigs at subsidized rates. "Over 300 applications were received. But not a single one seems to have been processed. No one has got any assistance till now," says Sogadu Venkatesh, a social worker who is campaigning against the practice.

The community

Kunchalu Koracha or Handi Korachas live in Kolar, Tumkur, Davanagere and Bellary districts. They are a sub-sect of Korachas, listed under the Scheduled Castes in Karnataka and under Scheduled Tribes in Andhra Pradesh. Their occupations are pig-rearing and broom-making.

None among the commmunity has ever been to college. Around 20 students are in school now with girls outnumbering boys. They have had no political representation till now. No Handi Koracha has made it to the panchayats or the assembly or parliament.

What is Ruka?

It is a counter-dowry practice in which the parents of the groom pay money to the bride. During marriage, a bunch of coins tied in a piece of cloth is given to the bride to keep for life. This is treated as a solemn promise from her that she would serve her husband and in-laws for life. This provides her parents-in-law absolute control over her life. In case of her husband's death they can sell her if they feel it is expensive to keep her and her children in their household and feed them.

Government shocked

Social welfare minister D Sudhakar said he was shocked to hear about such practices. He said he would provide a free house, loan to Nagamma for self-employment and free education for her children. He said the matter would be investigated and the guilty would be brought to book. He also said educational programmes would be taken up to wean away the community from such practices.

When reminded that similar promises were made by the government four years ago and that they were not met, he said he would call for details on their status and take up follow-up action. He may have to start from the fundamentals as the state government is yet to appoint chairpersons for the state women's commission and the state SC/ST commission.


G K Karanth, director of the centre for multi-disciplinary development research, feels all the stake-holders - the government, community and the civil society - have a role to play in abolishing this practice.

The government should assess why such barbaric practices persist. What are the hindrances to ending them; whether it is ignorance, exclusion, economic opportunity, or die-hard preservationism. Solutions can be evolved based on such data, Karanth who is the joint editor of the book 'Challenging Untouchability: Dalit Initiatives and Experiences from Karnataka' said.

He also felt that evil practices should be condemned even if they are part of community or tribal customs. "While I uphold the cultural rights of indigenous communities, I feel the need for a cultural ombudsman to look at these things and suggest what can be done," he said.

NGOs ready to help

Bangalore-based women's rights group Wimochana conducted a fact finding study about the practice last year.

They could not get much material as many people did not speak about it openly. "However, we are in touch with some local groups that are working at creating awareness against such practices," Wimochana's Madhu Bhushan said.

She said long term measures were needed to tackle such issues. "The government should take more responsible steps towards educating the communities and ending poverty among the community members that is the root cause of such practices," she said.

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