Calling for the Abolition of Indentured Labour in Assam

Comment by the Assam Chief Commissioner calling for the Abolition of Indentured Labour in Assam, 1900

In 1900 in his ‘Report on Labour Immigration to Assam’, the Assam Chief Commissioner Henry Cotton called for the abolition of the system of indentured labour there. Following this report an Assam Labour Commission was set up in 1906 which made the same recommendation, and the recruitment of indentured migrants was supposed to have  ended in 1909 (according to assurances given to the Indian nationalist leader Gokhale). In practice, however, some cases of indentured labour shipments to upper Assam appeared to continue until at least 1915.



The most remarkable feature of the figures for 1900 is that they show a lower rate of wages than the average of any year since 1895.  The amount is considerably below the statutory so-called minimum wage, and when the average is below the minimum of five rupees and four rupees, it follows that in the majority of cases the minimum was not earned.  Converted to a daily rate, the average wage paid to men has been a little over two annas and nine pies, and the average wage paid to women has been a little over two annas a day.  This is a miserable average pittance, and leaves no room for doubt that employers have been endeavouring to effect economy in working at the expense of the labour force.  The Chief Commissioner has come across a gross case in which coolies in the fourth year of their agreement were not paid the higher rates of salary to which they were entitled.  Cases have frequently come to his notice in which rice has not been provided at the statutory rate, and in which subsistence allowance has not been paid to sick coolies.  Such cases show the ease with which employers, when they are so disposed, can set aside the provisions of the law for the protection of labourers.  The odious practice of allowing only quarter haziris, or a daily wage of three pice in the case of men and less in the case of women, appears to be commoner than Mr. Cotton had imagined.

            These figures, and facts, when they are considered in connection with the annual expenditure of some thirty lakhs of rupees in acquiring coolies – an outlay which would have been unnecessary if the wages offered were sufficient to attract labour – leave the Chief Commissioner more and more convinced that the insufficiency of wages is the most serious of the troubles from which the industry in Assam is suffering.  He is no longer prepared to advocate half measures, and it is, in his opinion, a serious consideration whether the Legislature ought not now to accept the situation which the Secretary of State has always pointed out would be inevitable when the means of communication were improved and abolish a penal contract altogether, and leave Assam planters to get their labour in the same manner that the Duars and Chittagong and Ceylon planters obtain their supply.  The case of Ceylon is particularly in point.  The Chief Commissioner finds, from information published by a special correspondent in the Englishman, who wrote, after making local enquiries on the island, that labour there is free and unfettered by indenture, or anything in the nature of agreement that either party cannot terminate with a month’s notice; that the coolies are imported by sea from the Madras Presidency, and that the average cost of importing labour is only Rs. 10 per head; that men are paid a daily wage of 33 cents, or about 51/2 annas, and women 25 cents, or exactly 4 annas; and that they receive, as they do in Assam, free quarters and medical attendance, etc.  There is no labour difficulty in Ceylon, because the labourers are paid a fair market wage: but in Assam the difficulty is always present, and Mr. Cotton’s recent experience has led him to the conclusion that it will never cease until it is allowed to solve itself, without the assistance of Government, and without any kind of penal legislation, by the ordinary laws of supply and demand.