The dramatic picture of an emaciated old man falling at the feet of Tamil Nadu state officials, presumably thanking them for his freedom, puts India to shame as a nation. That the phenomenon of bonded labour persists should shock a country trying to modernize and swell its economy to $5 trillion in five years. There is no proper count of how many of our fellow citizens remain in a state of forced servitude, and that only speaks of our collective neglect.

Bonded labour, of course, is a euphemism for modern slavery. On paper, it was abolished by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976. In the instant case, 42 bonded labourers, including children, were rescued from wood-cutting units in the southern state’s Kancheepuram and Vellore districts. The families were allegedly kept as bonded labour for extended periods ranging from two to 15 years in lieu of unpaid debts of 9,000-25,000. As reported, the unit owners forced women, children and the elderly to work for inhuman hours for little pay. They were also starved.

Despite the prevalence of bonded labour in various parts of the country, the matter hardly ever comes up for public discussion. This suggests apathy. Governments, both at the Centre and in the states, must confront the issue squarely, instead of wishing it away. Unscrupulous money-lenders extend loans to the needy at usurious rates, and the slightest default often result in lenders grabbing their land and forcing them into begaar—forced and unpaid labour. This injustice must stop forthwith. An administration that cannot uphold the law and safeguard the vulnerable from such violations of their rights does not deserve to be in place.