Title: Azad Nagar
Author: Laura T. Murphy
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Price: Rs 299
Link For Purchase: Azad Nagar
The author is a professor of human rights and is an expert on the contemporary forms of slavery found all around the world, even in the twenty-first century. In this book, she deals with the kind of enslavement we see in India. The slavery the author refers to is akin to bonded labor and does not have any connection to the earlier forms, which were defined by the ownership of human beings. She describes how an enslaved caste of people, called Kols, break the shackles of bonded labor and establish a colony for themselves called Azad Nagar. The Kols are an impoverished community living in a small village in Sonbarsa, UP. I would like to give a brief explanation of the form of slavery referred to as contemporary slavery by the author in India.
Let us say, a farmer, works for a landlord or zamindar by taking some land on lease from him. He toils all day and then sells what he grows on the land to the Zamindar. In return, the Zamindar pays him a pittance which is just enough to keep him and his family alive for barely a day. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that the farmer might require monetary assistance for a marriage or some other event in his family at some point in time.
For this, he borrows money from the Zamindar. He does not sign any document or contract as he is illiterate. When he tries to repay the debt, he finds that due to accumulated interest, the amount to be returned has multiplied considerably. He finds himself caught in a debt trap and is never able to repay the debt. Sometimes the debts incurred by his dead ancestors also fall on his shoulders and he is now ensnared and cannot break free. In the first three chapters of the book, the author traces the process by which the Kols, who mainly work as stone crushers in quarries, break free of bonded labor and establish Azad Nagar. The author has written the book after thorough research and I for one enjoyed reading it. She describes how the zamindars were totally in control and what it takes for the Kols to break from the debt entrapment.
They are aided in their endeavor by what is called gossip organizing wherein information is disseminated discretely and using Hullabols (a form of resistance). In the struggle for the establishment of Azad Nagar, there is some violence and loss of life, and many organizations describing the struggle downplay this violence. Other important points to be noted are how as collectives the Adivasis are able to take out land on lease from the Government at reasonable rates. The story of the Kols and their struggle is written in the most riveting way possible. The rest of the book deals with several other things like how the corporates take over the quarries finally and use new equipment for the mining and most of the Kols are rendered jobless. Many of them finally make their way to the big cities where they can enjoy a better standard of living.
One thing I would like to mention is that this book paints a picture of India as a primitive underdeveloped country in several places. I don’t agree with the author that India is as impoverished as mentioned. Perhaps if one looks at India from the lofty heights of the standards of living in developed countries like the USA and UK, it might appear underdeveloped. But one must consider the fact that India got its independence only in 1947. We are still in the process of development. We are one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and we are making progress by leaps and bounds.
The book is a short one and is a good read. You can pick it up if you are interested in the ups and downs in the lives of people from a community that is extremely impoverished and at the bottom rung of society.
I am going with a 4/5 for Azad Nagar by Laura T. Murphy. I have cut off one point for the reasons mentioned above.
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