When 33-year-old Shylaja* went back to her home in Wayanad's Mananthavady last week, she broke down on seeing her family. The woman who belongs to Adiyan tribe had returned home years after she was taken to Karntaka's Kodagu, at the age of 13.
For the past 20 years, Shylaja had been forced to work as a domestic help in the house of Suresh in Ponnampetta in Kodagu. Having lived in the house without pay or freedom of movement, Shylaja was rescued by officials earlier in February.
Speaking to TNM, Dr K Krishnan, Executive Director of Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) - an organisation that works with tribes- says that they got information about Shyalaja's plight and decided to help her.
"The thing with bonded labour is that people do not realise that they are being forced into work. That's the case with Shylaja too. For a long time, she thought it was normal. But for the past 5-6 years, she wanted to get out of there, but was prevented by the owner. She was trapped in the house and forced to work as a domestic labourer, was denied even minimum wages. The owner restricted her movement and she was not allowed to do any other employment," Dr Krishnan explains.
Once FSD intervened, a coordinated effort by Manathavady administration and Kodagu administration led to Shylaja's rescue.
"We wrote to Wayanad district administration requesting help to rescue her. They gave us a letter and we approached Kodagu administration. They took steps and appointed three officers to visit the place and investigate whether it is a case of bonded labour. After making inquiries, we rescued her. Suresh, the owner of the house, is liable to be charged under Section 16 of Bonded Labour Abolition Act and Section 3 H of Prevention of Atrocities against SC/ST act," Dr Krishnan says.
Shylaja, who is now back with her family in Mananthavady, is undergoing counselling to ease her psychological trauma.
The bonded labourers
The Adiyan tribal sect of Mananthavady has been conditioned over time to believe that bonded labour is normal, Dr Krishnan points out.
"Historically, they are a group who have been forced into bonded labour. Normally what happens is that people go to tribal settlements where there are many girls and offer to teach them and take care of them. That's how they take away the girls, but in turn deny them education and force them to work as bonded labourers," he says.
In Shylaja's case, he says that it is still unclear whether her father knew about the nature of work she was forced into.
"We understand her father used to go to the owner's house once in a while and collect money. But when we asked him, he did not divulge any details. Her sister on the other hand, did not have any clue where Shylaja had been all these years," Dr Krishnan says.
Bonded labour is prohibited according to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. The Act was passed in order "to provide for the abolition of bonded labour system with a view to preventing the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections of the people."
According to FSD, a number of rescue operations were undertaken in the last few months. In December, a bonded labourer, native of Kalpetta, was rescued from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu. Another 55 tribal people were rescued from Tamil Nadu.
*Name changed to protect privacy