“We take freedom for granted... but these people who know what it is like not to be free. In the truest sense, their freedom means a lot more, because they value it more than you and me,” says Anu Canjanathoppil, Director of Operations, International Justice Mission (IJM).
IJM is a global non-governmental organisation focussed on human rights, law and law enforcement. IJM India works with the central and state governments to tackle two forms of human trafficking – bonded labour and sex trafficking of minors. They work with grassroots organisations to rescue and rehabilitate victims as well as prosecute offenders.
IJM recently released a calendar featuring former bonded labourers. The idea behind it came from the simple fact that 72 years since India became an independent country, there are hundreds of people who still live without freedom, like modern-day slaves. “Which is why these survivors are now beacons of hope within their communities. They wanted others to know their story, to inspire them to fight this crime, like them, and prevail,” Anu explains.
Those featured in the calendar share a common narrative of helplessness, where everything from movement to food and wages was uncertain, and often denied. Thankfully though, these 12 people had happy endings, and are now getting back to normal life.
IJM shared their poignant and inspiring stories with TNM.
Trafficked to a coffee plantation in Thiruvananthapuram along with his friends, Babu suffered for a month before IJM’s partner, Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) assisted the local police and rescued him and nine other bonded labourers and helped them return to Wayanad. Now, through a rehabilitation process, Babu has completed a course in retail industry sales and customer care. He is the president of a farming self-help group (SHG).
Sudheesh was among the 10 boys, including two minors, trafficked from Paliyana in Wayanad, Kerala, and forced into bondage. “I was abandoned by my parents when I was just a boy and since then, I have lived with my aunt’s family and my grandmother,” said Sudheesh. “Being taken away from my village and cheated in so many ways, made me decide never to leave again.”
Sudheesh and the rescued boys have formed an SHG enabling them to lease a small plot of land and grow various vegetables on it. They have also begun to save and start a fund in the SHG, which can be used by a member in need.
Venkataiah was a resident of Amaragiri in Nagarkurnool district, Telangana, where the entire fishing village was being held in bondage. Up to four generations of Venkataiah’s family had spent their life in this cruel system. Neither paid fairly for their fish nor given regular wages, their ordeal ended in January 2016 when the RDO (Revenue Divisional Officer) of Kollapur and the local police, supported by FSD, rescued 38 families.
Venkataiah now fishes in peace without strenuous hours and also encourages the youth of the village to try their hand at various skills, so they can increase their livelihood options.
Pandidurai and Gowri
The married couple were rescued after three years from a brick kiln in Thadagam, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Their daughter is now able to attend school, thanks to the money they received from some government schemes. Pandidurai earns fair wages by painting and Gowri is a saleswoman in a textile shop. They are involved with the Released Bonded Labour Association in their community.
The 40-year-old Odisha native had left of his hometown for the third time to seek work when tragedy struck. He was taken to a brick kiln Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh, where he was expected to work all day without food and proper shelter. Srikara lived a hard life, suffering physical and verbal abuse.
Fortunately, a labourer managed to escape and made contact with IJM. IJM’s then partner organization Association for Rural Development (ARD), pulled together support from the Collector, the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Karimnagar and the police, and a rescue was planned and executed in June 2014.
“When the rescue team came with the police to take us out of the kiln, I was filled with both joy and fear…. fear of the henchmen coming after us and taking us back; we would be stuck there forever,” Srikara said. “But when they took us to a safe place, gave us food and a place to sleep, the fear receded and the relief and joy of being rescued took over.”
Rescued from a brick kiln in Madhya Pradesh along with his brother, 24-year-old Arjun went to Ninora in MP to pay off a debt of Rs 5,000 he owed to an associate of the brick kiln owner. Once there however, he realised that unless he made 10,000 bricks a day, he would not get a single penny. He could not leave the premises either. And those who tried to leave, were brought back, beaten and tortured, instilling fear in the labourers.
“It was like walking into a spider’s web,” Arjun remarked – you could get in, but you could not get out. He spent over five years in these conditions, until June 2016 when a few government officials conducted an enquiry. Even then, the fear among the workers was so great that not one person spoke up when the officials asked about their experience.
Initially, it was only Arjun who gathered courage and spoke up. “Only 17 people took that leap of faith to come forward and get into the [rescue] truck after that. I wish the others had also come, they could have been free,” he says. Arjun now practices agriculture.
Rescued from bondage after nine years, Meera spent almost a decade doing back-breaking brick kiln work for over 12 hours a day in Rajasamand, Rajasthan. A local grassroots organisation, Jai Bhim Vikas Shikshan Sansthan (JBVSS) had assisted the district administration in rescuing her and others in 2017. Today, she works as a daily wager, but enjoys her freedom and independence.
Gurjant has not only escaped bonded labour, but also won a court case against his offender, a senior police officer in Punjab. Gurjant’s father Hari was also exploited by the same man. “I had to work constantly, was threatened, scolded and even slapped,” Gurjant said, admitting that he would often break down and cry. He would only be allowed to visit his parents for an hour every two months. “They claimed that my father owed them Rs 2 or 3 lakh and asked me to tell my father to pay them,” he said.
A former partner organisation of IJM, Volunteers for Social Justice, filed a case against his exploiter in 2013, and eventually the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled in Gurjant’s favour. The court said that the owner either release Gurjant or appear in court. The owner tried to negotiate with Gurjant and his father but eventually left him back at home.
Today, Gurjant trains horses and earns up to Rs 8,000 a month.
Renu Devi from Kespa in Gaya, Bihar, turned around her ordeal to become a leader and help others. Rescued along with 162 others by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Justice Ventures International (JVI) in 2014, Renu Devi and the rest of the villagers in Sarfarazbhiga had been trapped in the kamiya system. It is a form of caste-based, generational bondage where landowners exploit them for agricultural labour.
After the rescue, Renu purchased livestock from the compensation she received, to sustain the family. Her husband works as a contractor to build roads in the village and provides employment opportunities for 45 other rescued bonded labourers.
In a historic turn of events in 2016, Renu contested in the Panchayat elections against a higher caste, and her former owner’s candidate, and won by 7 votes. “I know it is unusual for women in my village to be leaders… I am thankful and proud to start a new thing. I believe that the future will be different for my village,” she said.
Laadu Kathat of Ajmer was trafficked to Bhilwara in Rajasthan, where he was forced to work for four years in bondage at a brick kiln. After being rescued along with 124 others with the support of IJM’s partner Jai Bhim Vikas Shikshan Sansthan, he has now donned a leadership role in his community. He is educating his kids at a private school and practices agriculture to support his family.
Lal Singh, his wife Sukhli Bai, sons Sunil Singh and Bablu, and others from their village Khargone, Madhya Pradesh came to Jalna in Maharashtra in search of work, after a year of bad rains. However, the family was cheated into crossing Jalna, into Karnataka perhaps, where they had to live in abject conditions.
They were forced to cut sugarcane with their bare hands for 16 hours a day. Their only sustenance was one kilogram of wheat flour per family. With no money or phone, they were locked at night in an animal shed, under constant surveillance and were restricted from speaking to each other. Lal Singh remembers one incident vividly – a man shouting in an alien language, “Make your back stiff, so I can beat you properly!”
Hope seemed bleak until one of them, on the pretext of relieving themselves, managed to find nomads speaking Hindi one day. They were able to contact their family in the village. Finally, a rescue was planned by IJM partner Jan Sahas, the CID team from Karnataka, Lal Singh’s father-in-law and members of the Bengaluru IJM team. Three months of unimaginable torture later, the family is now back in their village and is cultivating crops on the land they had earlier mortgaged.
Many bonded labourers get trapped because their exploiters tell them they have loans to pay off. This is what happened with Khemraj, his wife Bali and their 12-year-old daughter. Unable to repay a loan of Rs 40,000 when Bali had fallen grievously ill, Khemraj was trapped working at his moneylender’s brick kiln, on his terms, for three years.
It was in May 2016 that he was rescued. Now, Khemraj and his family continue to do what they do best – lay bricks at a kiln. However, unlike earlier, they get paid each day based on the number of bricks they lay, have the liberty to take breaks when they need and work at their own pace.
(Photos courtesy IJM)