It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon when Chengalpet Revenue District Officer D Muthuvadivel made his way to a set of brick kilns in Elumichampet village. It was only Muthuvadivel’s second day in office and he had arrived at the venue based on a tip-off that several bonded labourers had been held at the site which hosted 10 kilns.
The 45-year-old had been shocked to hear that one of the labourers had allegedly been killed after leaving the kiln and the blatant illegality of this modern day slavery had pushed him to personally visit the site.
As he was getting out of the car, he noticed several men and women fleeing on bikes, led by the owners of the kilns. Only two people were left standing – 42-year-old Ravi and his 35-year-old wife Devi, who had been working 17 hours a day for seven years to pay off a debt of just Rs 6,000.
“The couple looked starved and malnourished, like they hadn’t eaten for a month. The others had run away because the owners got wind of the fact that officials were coming and ordered all them to leave and not come back for 10 days,” says Preethi, a social worker with the International Justice Mission, who has been working with the district administration to rescue men and women from bonded labour.
“These labourers are not held by walls but by the fear of retribution of what would happen if they disobeyed the masters,” she adds.
Then why did this couple decide to stay back?
“The man who was allegedly killed by the brick kiln owners, Shankar, was Ravi’s brother. Somehow Shankar’s death had made the couple strong enough to seek justice,” Preethi says.
But did they not face retribution?
“They did. By the time we were done enquiring with them, their children were missing,” she says.
Children under threat
In just the last two days, Kancheepuram district has seen the rescue of 18 bonded labourers, all in a radius of just 20 km. This was done over three rescue operations – one in Thimmavaram village and two in Elumichampet. It was, in fact, a raid conducted on Friday that led the officials to a second one in the same village the next day. The common fact that emerged in the enquiries was how even children were made to work in the kilns occasionally and held hostage for their parents’ debt.
“The couple in Saturday’s rescue had four children and Devi was pregnant with the fifth,” says Preethi. “When we first asked her where the children were, she told us they were playing in the settlement. But when we went to look for them, they were missing,” she adds.
According to the RDO, it is common for children to be held back if parents leave the site, to ensure that they come back to work. These children hardly ever go to school and are often made to work in the kilns with their parents.
“We searched for them for close to two hours,” says the RDO. The Tahsildar, police inspector, VAO and social workers were helping the parents in the search. Devi kept calling out to her eldest son, thinking that the children were hiding because they were afraid of the officials.
“We saw a heavily pregnant Devi climb down a steep muddy path full of thorn bushes. It was scary to even watch,” says Preethi. “Finally we found the children behind some foliage,” she adds.
The owners of the kiln had attempted to abduct the children while leaving. But the children could not keep up with the adults, and were made to sit behind the bushes and ordered to keep quiet. At one point they were even dragged through the sand. It was their footsteps that led Devi to them.
“It was just a terrible sight. It had been just two days since I took over and to see that all this injustice is happening so close to the capital city is shocking,” says the RDO.
Since 2016, over 200 labourers have been rescued from Kancheepuram after they were found working for less than the minimum wages to pay off paltry advances. Some of them have for worked for decades to pay off small debts.
“We immediately took over the kilns and seized all the equipment necessary to carry out operations,” Muthuvadivel adds.
The owners of the kiln are absconding but have been booked under section 370 (Trafficking of persons) and section 374 (Unlawful compulsory labour) of the Indian Penal code and sections 9, 16, 17 and 18 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.