Odisha barbers fight to break free of bonded-labour system 'bartan'
All his life, barber Laxmidhar Barik, 58, practiced 'bartan' - service provided to a dominant upper caste family in lieu of an advance of 10-15 kg of paddy annually - that required him to wash feet and lift leftover food plates during ceremonial feasts, besides cutting hair. Priya Ranjan Sahu reports.Updated: May 02, 2013 13:52 IST
All his life, barber Laxmidhar Barik, 58, practiced 'bartan' - service provided to a dominant upper caste family in lieu of an advance of 10-15 kg of paddy annually - that required him to wash feet and lift leftover food plates during ceremonial feasts, besides cutting hair.
Four years ago, however, he decided to challenge the age-old practice, defined as bonded-labour under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 by the state government.
"Upper caste goons ostracised my family and assaulted me several times. Once I spent several days in hospital," Laxmidhar told HT, sitting on a heap of soil in his ramshackle house in Belpada village of the district, about 55 km east of Bhubaneswar.
But repeated humiliation and deteriorating economic condition only hardened his resolve to fight back. In 2011 he moved Orissa high court, praying for release from the bonded labour system and received his release certificate two years later from the Puri district administration as per the court order.
Laxmidhar is not alone in challenging the practice. There are thousands of others from barber community in the district whose relentless decade-old struggle is nothing short of a revolution that has also spread to neighbouring Khurda, Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapada districts.
Though the movement for freedom from bondage took wings in Puri in 2000 with the barber community of about 55,000 deciding to do away with the undignified practice, a majority continued fearing upper caste retaliation.
"Going to the police was futile as it always worked out a compromise favouring the influential castes," said Panchanan Barik, 60, of Handiali village.
Panchanan sat on a demonstration in front of Puri district collector's office with his wife Rani Barik, 54, in 2003 and continued it for 272 days till authorities assured them justice. For his act of defiance, upper caste people beat him up and disrobed his wife, he said.
The community's struggle did not seem to have an effect on the state government, which in 2004 ruled out recognising people from barber and washerman communities as bonded labour. Baghambar Pattanaik, advisor to Odisha Goti Mukti Andolan (Odisha bonded labour freedom movement), challenged the decision in the National Human Rights Commission in 2005.
The rights body gave a historic order three years later, saying 'bartan' was a manifestation of bonded labour system and asked the government to initiate the process to free them.
"We gave the state government a list of 1,600 people from barber and washerman communities - 1200 from Puri alone - and urged it to issue release certificates to them," said Pattanaik, who has filed eight cases in Orissa high court and more than 5,000 in the NHRC on behalf of OGMA to expedite the process of identification and rehabilitation of barber and washerman communities.
Since 2011, a total of 110 persons - 62 in Puri - have been issued release certificates, while a process is on to identify thousands of others for issuance of release certificates. Puri collector NK Nayak said the district administration had more than 1,000 such cases. "We have been studying every individual case," he said.
The certificate entitles the persons freed from bondage automatic inclusion in the below poverty line (BPL) list and a cash compensation of R20,000. Admitting the cash compensation is quite meagre, Odisha panchayati raj minister Kalpataru Das said: "The central government has not increased the amount since 2000."
Laxmidhar said a good compensation was desirable but individual dignity was far more important.
He should know as his family suffered heavily due to social boycott. He and his wife worked as daily labourers in other villages to earn their living. Unable to buy straw, he covered the roof of his house with polythene.
"But at the end of the day, it is worth it as I am sure my struggle will ensure dignity for the next generation," he said.