“We feel like we have found a second chance at life.” These are the words of 38-year-old Raghu Malleshappa Ballary, a B.Com graduate and a bonded labourer, who escaped and helped the rescue of 14 others from a ginger farm in Bylakuppe, Mysuru district, after months of bondage.
These 14 labourers — men between the ages of 28 and 60 — were forced to work on planting and harvesting ginger, weeding, spraying pesticide, applying fertilizers, etc., for no money and very frugal meals.
According to Raghu, he was at the Hubballi Railway Station, where daily-wage workers gather for work, when he was lured into the job. “A man named Niranjan spoke to us about a comfortable job in a farm in Bylakuppe. We were promised Rs 350 as our wages per day, good food, alcohol at night and told that the work would be from 9 am to 6 pm. We were also told that we can try it for 15 days, and if we don’t like it, we can go to Coorg in search of work,” he says.
The International Justice Mission, the non-profit organisation which helped coordinate the rescue operation, has pointed out that it is quite rare to find a graduate degree holder working as bonded labour. “But it proves that bonded labour has evolved beyond its traditional form where landless labourers were tied to feudal landlords,” said Indrajeet Pawar, the Director of Operations of International Justice Mission, the non-profit organisation which helped coordinate the rescue.
The man who trafficked them with promises of a comfortable job was the brother-in-law of the man who headed the farm, Umesh. Raghu says that they were woken up each day at 6 am and freshened up as four people kept a watch on them.
“We were given one cup of black tea and then made to work. We didn't know how to do the work in the fields, but we were beaten up and forced to work if we complained. It would continue till 6-7pm every day, whenever the sky grew dark, and we were only given frugal meals in between. If we complained of sickness, we were beaten then too,” he says.
Several labourers who were trafficked were also assaulted.
“I have told the owner many times to pay me my wages and let me go, but I was beaten with chains and sticks, and told to keep working for a few more months before getting paid,” one of the rescued labourers says.
The issue came to light after Raghu managed to escape from the farm, which then led to the rescue of the 14 people as well as the owner’s arrest. The labourers were taken to other fields to work as well, which gave Raghu his chance.
“The man watching over us said that he is going to get food in five minutes and I decided to run for it. I ran and ran, until I found a bus and managed to reach Gadag,” he says.
After reaching Gadag, Raghu got in touch with the brother of one of the labourers and then the police. The police then reached out to the International Justice Mission for assistance.
Speaking to TNM, Hunsur Assistant Commissioner Nitesh K said that the land had actually been given to Tibetan refugees, who illegally sub-leased around 30 acres to the offender.
“They were not paid any salary and they were locked up in one room every night. Even if they wanted to go attend nature’s call, two guards accompanied them. Every night, they used to beat up one person to create fear among the others,” the Assistant Commissioner said.
The police and the district administration, assisted by the International Justice Mission, conducted a raid on the location and the labourers were rescued.
“The sub-divisional magistrate must inquire into the veracity of the claims. So, since I am a sub-divisional magistrate, we conducted an enquiry in the presence of a video camera, one by one. Based on the statements and the body language of the bonded labourers, we came to the conclusion that they were actually in forced labour,” he added.
All of the labourers who were rescued were given their Release Certificates as well as the initial rehabilitation amount of Rs 20,000. One of the labourers, who has a hearing and speech disability, is currently at the government rehabilitation centre, until authorities can learn where he hails from.
Umesh has been booked under sections of the Bonded Labour Act, assault and grievous injury. Niranjan and one other person involved are yet to be found.
With inputs from Prajwal Bhat