Participatory Action Research and Learning Within Large-Scale Operational Programs to Reduce the Prevalence of Bonded Labour in India and Nepal

Participatory action research and learning within large-scale operational programs to reduce the prevalence of bonded labour in India and Nepal.

From 2015 to 2019, IDS carried out three mixed-methods, participatory, Action Research (AR) and learning projects to reduce the prevalence of bonded labour in India and Nepal.

Activities were delivered in the context of a multi-million-dollar programme of operational interventions to reduce the prevalence of bonded labour. This operational program was facilitated by multiple NGOs in various communities affected by bonded labour – all located in modern slavery “hotspots”.

Program components differed from community to community but included: formation of community-based groups such as credit and savings groups; interventions to improve schools and provide educational support to children; activation of government livelihoods programmes; rescue initiatives and rehabilitation support; awareness raising and legal support. Collaborations between local community groups, local government bodies and the private sector were also initiated in line with local needs and capacities.

The program was funded by the Freedom Fund, a foundation specialising in modern slavery, in partnership with around 40 local NGO partners in Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and South-Eastern Nepal. The IDS (participatory action research, monitoring and learning) activities were directed by Danny Burns and Pauline Oosterhoff.

Bonded labour and other forms of “modern slavery” remain major issues, particularly in some parts of South Asia.  According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, India has the largest number of people in modern slavery in the world – approximately 7.9 out of an estimated global of 40.3 million people. “Modern slavery” is a (contested) umbrella term for a range of exploitative labor practices, such as forced labor, bonded labor, and trafficking. With definitions changing frequently, the numbers of estimated affected people also change – affecting measurements of the impact of eradication efforts.

This programme was conducted in three “slavery hotspots” which have a high prevalence (up to 50%) of households with members in bonded labour. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh the focus was on people labouring in brick kilns and stone quarries (and, to some extent, on sex workers). In Tamil Nadu the focus was on people labouring in cotton-mill workers and in South Eastern Nepal the focus was on agricultural bondage.


In Tamil Nadu and Northern India, IDS partnered with Praxis. In Nepal, our partner was ActionAid Nepal. Praxis and Action Aid Nepal delivered the programme on the ground with almost 40 NGOs (implementing partners of Freedom Fund).


The IDS / Praxis/ Action Aid Nepal team combined qualitative and quantitative participatory methodologies with qualitative and quantitative academic research and evaluation methods. Methods were sequenced to build on each other and were as below:

  1. Initial scoping phase (interviews, focus groups with communities, field observations).
  2. Life story collection and collective narrative analysis of stories (800+ life stories). Analysis was carried out by bonded labourers plus grassroots field workers and resulted in large-scale system-maps exposing the dynamics driving exploitative labour, – which then informed the focus of Action Research groups.
  3. A participatory statistics process to collect baseline and end-line data: (Tamil Nadu – 2,970 households at base-line and 2,700 households at end-line; Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – 3,466 households at base-line and 3,175 households at end-line; South Eastern Nepal – 1,660 households at base-line). The indicators for the survey instruments used to collect data were derived from the collective narrative life-story analysis. Participatory statistics is an umbrella term for methods that enable local people to generate their own numbers and analyse them for local use. Aggregated, these numbers can feed into large programs and policy processes.
  4. Action research processes focusing on key issues identified in the narrative analysis of life stories. Through Action Research, a wide variety of community based stakeholder groups generated and tested solutions (pilot interventions) to systemic drivers of debt bondage. IDS and Praxis supported eleven Action Research groups in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and 12 groups in Tamil Nadu. IDS and Action Aid Nepal supported five Action Research Groups in Nepal.
  5. Evaluative interviews with programme participants, local NGO partner staff and other stakeholders combined with a document analysis to triangulate findings from methods one to four.


Programme outputs, reports and blogs can be found below.

Methodologically, the IDS work in these three hotspots demonstrated that mixed qualitative and quantitative participatory methods can be scaled up to measure and complement large scale operational programs aiming to reduce the prevalence of bonded labour.

Key contacts

Project details

start date
1 January 2015


In partnership with
PRAXIS, India ActionAid
Supported by
Freedom Fund

About this project

India Nepal

Recent work


Qualitative Feedback from Community Participants, NGOs and External Stakeholders on Freedom Fund Interventions to Reduce the Prevalence of Bonded Labour in Northern India

This report was produced by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) and Praxis, for the Freedom Fund. It is an output of the programme ‘Planning, learning, monitoring and evaluation activities for the Northern India Hotspot’. The Northern India Hotspot was launched in March 2014,...

Danny Burns
Danny Burns & 3 others

13 March 2020


Qualitative Feedback from Community Participants, NGOs and External Stakeholders on Freedom Fund Interventions to Reduce the Prevalence of Bonded Labour in Tamil Nadu

We have structured this report by key activity. This was because structuring by question in India led to some analytical duplication, where critical commentary on some questions was contained in answers to others. We did an initial analysis against Organisation for Economic Co-operation and...

Danny Burns
Danny Burns & 5 others

11 March 2020