With his palms to the floor and knees on the ground, 60-year-old Kashi lay down on a barren path, at the feet of the Kanchipuram tahsildar on Wednesday, to express his gratitude. A team of revenue officials had arrived at a woodcutting unit in Kanchipuram on Wednesday morning to free him and 27 other bonded labourers, who were trapped in a vicious debt cycle for over five years.
The rescue operations were simultaneously conducted by revenue officials at woodcutting units in Kanchipuram and Vellore. A total of 42 bonded labourers were rescued and of these 28 were from Kanchipuram and 14 were from Vellore. Of this, 16 of them were children. The operations were carried out based on a tip-off to sub-collectors A Saravanan (Kancheepuram) and Elambahavath (Ranipet).
"Officials reached the two units at around 9.30 am in the morning and began to question those working there," says Gopi, the Kanchipuram head of Rescued Bonded Labourers Association, who was part of the operation. "We found that these men and women had borrowed only a few thousands from a man named Nataraj and his relatives. But they were made to work for 5 years to repay this debt and now the owners claimed that their loan had grown to Rs 30,000. The people there were not allowed to go to their native towns and even when pregnant, going to the hospital was out of the question. They were made to have the children in the woods," he alleges.
In addition to this, they were allegedly not paid for their work.
"When they said that they were hungry and needed to buy rice, Nataraj told them to just chomp on some wood," alleges Gopi. "When the officials said that they were being rescued, the workers got overwhelmed and Kashi fell at the feet of the rescuers. The old man had borrowed only Rs 1000 from Natraj and his relatives," he adds.
Following the rescues, the labourers and men who had put them to work have been taken to the local revenue district official's office. Following this, the bonded labourers will be awarded release certificates to free them from the debt.