Human Rights
No freedom, no wages and a grueling 17-hour work day, the bonded labourers were rescued after one of them managed to escape.
Representational Image/ PTI

A horrifying story of abuse and atrocity has come to light in Karnataka’s Hassan district. On Sunday, the police led a team to rescue 52 people in Savankamahalli village. Kept in a small shed, these bonded labourers - including women and children - had lived for months and years in depraved conditions.

Dr AN Prakash Gowda, Hassan Superintendent of Police, who led the rescue team, told TNM that at least 24 of those rescued belonged to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. While most were from various districts in Karnataka like Raichur, Chikkamagaluru, Tumakuru, Chitradurga, there were a few people from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as well.

“On December 16, in Krishne Gowda's coconut farm, 32 men, 16 women, 1 girl and three boys were rescued from bonded labour. The owner of the farm and the people who managed it including Basavaraj, Munish, Pradeep and Nagaraju would make these rescued people work without paying them. They were threatened, beaten with wooden logs and forced into labour. The women were also harassed and the owner and his men misbehaved with the women (sic),” the FIR says.

The accused - Munesha, Krishnegowda, Basavaraja, Nagaraja and Pradeep - have been booked under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 324 (wrongful confinement) 344 (theft), 354 (using assault or criminal force to a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty) and 34 (acts done by several persons in the furtherance of a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. They have also been booked under sections 18 and 19 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and relevant sections of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. All four have been arrested.

International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-government organisation which works to prevent and rescue bonded labour, is providing support to the police and authorities in the case. The 52 persons are currently housed in shelter under the state Social Welfare Department.

How the case came to light

The horrifying abuse and exploitation of the 52 persons, two of whom had been trapped there for three years, came to light when Krishnappa, one of the labourers, managed to scale a tall wall and escape.

“He told me that the wall was as high as 12-feet. But the desperation to get out of there was so strong that he somehow managed,” Prathima, Associate Director, IJM, says. “He was also sure that he did not want to leave the others there, which is why he wanted to go to the police.” About two weeks ago, 3 people had managed to escape the shed too, the FIR says. However, the labourers say they did not go to the police.

To avoid identification, Krishnappa went through a ragi field in the night and reached a neighbouring village. “He knew that a fellow captive labourer was from this village. So when he reached there, he sought out his relatives, and told them where he was and what had been happening with him and others. Relieved to have word of their family member, the relatives, Krishnappa and some other villagers, went to the police,” Prathima tells TNM.

The exploitation and abuse

Krishnegowda and his men would prey on vulnerable migrant workers who came looking for work. They would find them on railway stations and bus stands, promise work for a good wage and bring them to the farm, where they were ultimately held captive and exploited.

Kept under lock and key and supervised at all times, the adults were made to do arduous manual labour in the agricultural fields from 4-5 am in the morning to late in the night. They were punished violently for the slightest things - talking more than their captors liked, speaking with outsiders, protesting against the work or atrocities, or even speaking to their wives or children.

“They were loaned to neighbouring plantations as well. When asked if they ever tried to speak to other people outside to get help, one of the rescued persons told me, ‘The supervisor would just show us their eyes and say, should I tell anna? That was enough. We were too scared,’,” Prathima says.

When they were rescued, many were found to have injuries on their bodies. The SP notes that while 3-4 of the men had fresh cuts, the others had old wounds. “One man opened his shirt to show us his back - it was full of marks of the beatings. There was no medical attention given to them,” Prathima says.

While the children - all under 10 years - were not made to work, they were kept locked up inside the same shed all day while their parents were taken to work. In another incident of heartless cruelty, the man who was supervising some labourers, got angry when they reached the shed a child started crying.

“The father said that the man was drunk, irritated with the crying, so he pushed the child causing him to fall down and get hurt. When the parents tried to go console the child, they were beaten up. They finally had to leave the child crying there, and it was only later, after the supervisor left that they could speak to the child,” Prathima recounts.   

Little sustenance, deplorable living conditions

There were no wages given to these workers, and their meagre rewards were three meals a day and a packet of liquor for the men in the night. “However, if they did anything that the captors did not like, they would not only be beaten with wooden sticks and whips in punishment, but their meals or the liquor would be taken away,” Prathima reveals.

For the labourers, it wasn’t just the cramped space in the shed that was the problem - there was not even a toilet there. When they were locked up in the night, there was no way for them to relieve themselves. Finally, a pipe was installed in one corner which they could use. “The situation was so bad that the men would try to hold up a sheet for their wives if they had to relieve themselves in order to maintain some semblance of privacy,” Prathima says.

Rehabilitation

Even now that they have been rescued, it is difficult to reunite them with their families, because their captors took away their phones, SIM cards and their documentation. Even the women were not allowed to keep their jewelry, whether it was precious or not. “They do not remember the numbers of their relatives, nor do they have proper addresses,” Prathima says.

She adds that she is optimistic though, because the police as well as government have been working in tandem to ensure that these rescued labourers are rehabilitated. “The judicial authorities have directed to give some financial relief to these persons. The district authority is looking into it,” the SP says.