Bonded labourers in Bengaluru rescued from slavery, then threatened by thugs

43 people had been brought to Bengaluru with the promise of a better life. They were then made to work as bonded labourers.
Bonded labourers in Bengaluru rescued from slavery, then threatened by thugs
Bonded labourers in Bengaluru rescued from slavery, then threatened by thugs
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Around 40 of them sat huddled in a hall attached to a temple in Kodigehalli in Bengaluru. Men, women and children from Odisha who had been rescued from their pathetic work environment in a brick kiln in the city on Thursday.

On Saturday afternoon, even as International Justice Mission, the NGO that was part of the rescue mission, and the government were busy making arrangements to send them back to their village, a group of thugs barged in.

Over a dozen men, assaulted members of International Justice Mission, and also tried to intimidate the survivors. 

The identities of the attackers have not been established yet but they could possibly be related to the brick kiln owner.

"To the best of our knowledge, these were local paid hoodlums. Whether they were related to the business (brick kiln) owners or not, we don't have particular evidence. But these people had come with the purpose of disturbing the peace here, perhaps to try and get some mileage," says Ajoy Varghese, Director, IJM.

The protestors outside the temple hall.

Once the situation escalated and the safety of the NGO members was at risk, they were forced to leave the venue.

When this reporter tried to take a video of the assault and intimidation, one of the men snatched her phone and refused to let go till it was deleted.

While only an investigation can reveal if the men wanted to exact revenge for setting the labourers free, they justified their actions saying they were suspicious of the NGO's activities.

Implicit threat

The incident highlights how rescuing survivors from any kind of organised crime is just a part of the process to rehabilitate them. And NGO workers often face challenges of threats and intimidation while carrying out their work.

"This (Saturday's) kind of intimidation does not happen regularly. There are certain times where it has happened in the past. But there is always that implicit threat, anger and resentment, where things can go out of hand, and that is why at the end of the day we refer the matter to the government and it is up to them how they manage the situation," says Ajoy.

He adds that they know their boundaries and do not believe in taking law into their hands.

"We recognise the role of the government and that we have a limited role to play. NGOs are not law enforcers, we are just working with law enforcers. Our staff generally have a tempered approach where we ensure that we don't over extend our roles but we rather refer back to those who are law enforcers such as the police, district administration or the anti-trafficking unit," he says.

The incident took place in the presence of a few policemen and was brought under control only when MK Jagadeesh, Assistant Commissioner of Bengaluru Urban, reached the spot.

When asked if the government and administration were helpful and supportive, Ajoy says that it usually depends from person to person.

"A lot depends on who the individual is. We have found that there are certain officers who are more proactive than others. And there could be different reasons for it. It could be a priority issue, could be a pressure issue. But in this case, the AC worked very well and got the release certificates of the survivors and was making arrangements to send them home," he states.

The NGO will be meeting the district administration and take a call on filing an official complaint against the assaulters.

The rescue

On Thursday, the NGO, which works for human rights, assisted the government in rescuing 43 bonded labourers from a brick kiln in Bagalur in Bengaluru Urban district.

The survivors belonged to 17 families from Balangir district in Odisha. They had been brought to Bengaluru with the promise of a better job and life for them and their families.

Each adult was also given an amount, ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000, before joining which most spent or used to repay other debts. Once here, however, it did not take them long for them to realise that they are being kept as bonded labourers.

"Bola tha acha khana, acha paisa milega. Lekin sab gadbad ho gaya. (While bringing us here, they told us we will get good food, good money here. But now everything is a mess)" says Dibakar*, a 20-year-old, who moved thousands of kilometers away from home with his mother, father, brother and sister-in-law.

A family of small time farmers, their income was too meagre to run their lives.

"They took my Aadhaar card and gave me Rs 20,000 before we came. We worked from around 5 or 6 in the morning and sometimes it would even extend till 1 am the next day. And they paid three of us Rs 700 a week," he says.

"When we are unwell, they gave us a tablet and asked to get back to work," says Gopal*, another survivor who came to work in the kiln with his wife, and was eagerly waiting to return home.

According to NGO members, the children too were made to work and it comprised of laying and drying the bricks in the sun. They were however not paid.

They had to cook their own food and workers were not allowed to venture out of the compound. Guards in the campus and the mistry, in-charge of the labourers, ensured that.

Once a week one person from each family was taken to the local market to buy provisions. 

"The driver and the seth (the owner or operator of the kiln) would take us to the market. But if we tried to leave or opposed anything, they threatened to beat us up," Dibakar adds.

Dibakar and the others were on Sunday sent back to Odisha where they will receive rehabilitation assistance and also help with availing government schemes.

India has the highest number of modern slaves in the world at 18.3 million, as per the Global Slavery Index 2016. The number, activists think, could be much higher.

The solution lies in not just rescuing survivors, but also breaking the cycle of crime.

"Law enforcers should ensure that those who are perpetrating this crime are booked. There are cases of violence, abuse and sexual assault too because bonded labour really is a euphemism for a condition in which any crime can be committed against the victim and nobody will know about it because it is a form of modern day slavery," says Ajoy.

*Names changed

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