- NL Sena
Despite the prohibition of bonded labour, there are about 18.3 million people engaged in modern slavery in India.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sudha Devi sits on her haunches, her two-month-old baby in her lap. They’re in an open ground near the India Oil petrol pump opposite the Sarai Kale Khan bus stop in Delhi. A fire burns nearby to keep them warm. Her belongings, as well as those of 18 others, are piled up at some distance. These included a bed frame, three khats, a trunk, a water canister, a couple of jute sacks and bags, shovels and other equipment. Two khats were placed nearby—the dishevelled mattresses and quilts showed that they had been slept in.
Sudha was part of a 19-member group that was rescued by a Jodhpur-based non-governmental organisation, Jai Bhim Vikas Shikshan Sansthan, from a brick kiln in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Eleven minors—16 years or less—were also part of the four-family group.
Until January 21, these families were working as bonded labourers in 14-hour shifts. Going to school was a far-off dream for families struggling to make ends meet. “School kaise bhejte. Jab tak sab kaam na karein tab tak kuch nai hoga (How to send kids to school, until everyone worked we barely scraped through),” says one of the group members. The four families had moved from Uttar Pradesh’s Banda to Kotputli tehsil’s Meerapur area over a promise of better pay. They were also told that if they did not like the work, they would be allowed to leave.
The reality was quite different.
Harassment and ill-treatment
The families were given an advance of ₹43,000 and were promised ₹530 for every 1,000 bricks laid down. But the families allege that despite laying down approximately one lakh bricks per adult person—men laid more bricks than women—they were only given ₹1,500-2,000 for expenses. According to Rinku Parihar, Jai Bhim’s program convenor, the owner alleges to have paid the thekedaar (contractor) ₹1 lakh in advance to be distributed to the labourers.
When the families would ask for clearance of dues, the muneem (accountant) Daataram would threaten them. “Police se kaam loge toh juton se maarenge, m***d (If you go to the police, I will beat you with shoes, m***r),” 30-year-old Susheel recalled Daataram as saying.
In the absence of money, the families started buying groceries on credit. By the end of three months, they owed the local grocer about ₹9,000. They also owed money to doctors for medical expenses such as Sudha’s delivery as well as 24-year-old Rajju Prasad’s treatment. Prasad was beaten up by local goons at the behest of Daataram, families claimed. The hair grows in patches on Prasad’s head, where he received stitches allegedly after being beaten up.
The group’s troubles were not limited to delay in payments. According to the families, Daataram would also fudge the accounts. He would account for only 700 bricks, instead of 1,000, Susheel says. Twenty-two-year-old Sonu says, “Ek se do line kha jata tha (He would leave out at least 1-2 brick lines).” The male members of the family also claim that two of four account diaries—notebooks in which they noted the number of bricks laid down by each member—were also taken away. “Hum kisi tarah saabit na kr sake isi lie le liya the (To keep us from having any proof of our work, they took it away),” Susheel says.
Different family members told this reporter that Daataram and the owner, Sumeet Kumar Jaat, would lock them inside their shacks at night to prevent them from running away. Susheel says that Daataram, among others, also made obscene comments about the womenfolk, particularly the unmarried girls. “Jab t**ti krne jate thi, toh upar se dekhte the. Siti bajate the (When she used to go to defecate, they would watch from a distance. They would whistle at her),” 35-year-old Rani said. In the absence of a toilet, all members of the family were forced to defecate in the open.
Credits: Jai Bhim
Describing the continuous harassment, Sonu says, “Muneem ladki mangta tha, kehta tha ye ₹200-250 le lo (Muneem would ask for a girl, would say take this ₹200-250).” Susheela, 35, explains how leaving behind young girls in the shacks was dangerous. “Ladki ghar pe khana banati thi, toh buri nazar se dekhta tha. Ladki kisse kehti? Jab hum wapis ate tab hum batati (When the girl used to cook at home, he would look at her inappropriately. Who would the girl complain to? When we used to come back from work, she would tell us).”
Daataram would ask Rani why her 16-year-old daughter wouldn’t talk to him. “Solah saal ki ladki hai, bina karan kyu baat karegi (She is 16, why would she talk to him without reason),” Rani says. In fear, Rani had sent her eldest daughter back home to live with her in-laws. She also recalled the time when her seven-year-old Tinku was abused.
Give the situation, family members wanted to leave. They asked for their labour to be calculated and paid for. “₹530 ke jagah wo ₹250 rupay de raha tha, jo bola tha uska aadhaa (₹250 was being given instead of the promised ₹530—half of what was promised),” says 38-year-old Rajesh, a relative who had come to help the families transition. Rajesh works in a brick kiln in Rajasthan’s Alwar. He receives timely payments and there is no harassment, he told this correspondent.
To pay off their debts and leave, the families borrowed some money from another brick kiln. However, when they wanted to leave, they were threatened and beaten up. It was during this time the family members claimed that Prasad, who had received stitches, was beaten up.
After continuous harassment, they decided to contact Jai Bhim. “Ander se kas gae the tab call kie the (We reached out to the NGO after feeling suffocated),” Susheela says.
“Bees saal se bhatte pe kaam kr ri hu. Mere teen bacche bhatte pe hue. Kisi aur bhatte pe aise paise nai roke, aisa nai hua (I have been working in different brick kilns for nearly 20 years now. I have given birth to my kids at work. Never faced such trouble at any other location),” Rani says. Her parents also used to work at a brick kiln.
After receiving a call from Rajesh, Jai Bhim sent a team to investigate the allegations made by the families. Rajesh was part of a group rescued by Jai Bhim earlier. After a month-long investigation, the investigating team reached out to the district administration and subsequently, a group release certificate was issued for 19 people.
However, families allege, the night they were leaving, their vehicle was surrounded by villagers trying to stop them. They had come at the behest of the owner, families claimed. “Wo sab Sumeet ke jaat ke the, labour kaise bhag jae isi liye unhe bulaya tha (They belonged to the same caste as Sumeet, he had called them to prevent us from getting away),” Susheel says. The grocer also stood before their getaway vehicle, asking for his dues. With the help of the rescue team, the families paid off the grocer. Under police protection, they travelled to Delhi and were dropped at the open area near the India Oil petrol pump, family members said.
They now plan to go to Alwar and work in the kiln where Rajesh is employed. Going back home is not feasible—there are no jobs, Susheel says. “Sayani ladkiyaan hai, shaadi karani hai, ghar jaenge to bhooke mar jaenge (Girls are of marriageable age, we have to get them married, if we go home, we will die hungry),” Rani explains. Susheel says they can’t move to farming since they own no land.
Jai Bhim representative, Pradip Sharma, a rehabilitation worker, says the advance payment made by kiln owners allowed families to meet expenses. This induces families into this line of work.
The families are now seeking justice. “Bhatte malik ke khilaf karwahi ho bas yahi chahte hai (We want an investigation against the kiln owner),” Susheel and Sonu say. However, no first information report has been lodged yet. As matters stand, an application has been filed with the district officials. In response, the Collector and District Magistrate’s office, Jaipur, has asked the Jaipur police and Kotputli officials to begin investigations.
Newslaundry reached out to the Jagroop Singh Yadav, Collector and District Magistrate, Jaipur for comments. This piece will be updated if and when they respond.
This is not the first case of bonded labourers being rescued. In February 2018, 63 people were rescued from a brick kiln in Haryana. Two months later, 81 persons were freed from Telangana’s Rangareddy. Despite the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976, there are about 18.3 million people in modern slavery in India, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. The Ministry of Labour & Employment’s press release states that 94 people were rescued between July 23 and December 17 in 2018 from across 20 states. The numbers from media reports do not match the ministry’s records.
For the rehabilitation of bonded labourers, a centrally-sponsored scheme has been in operation since May 1978. This scheme allows each adult rescued bonded labourer financial assistance between ₹1 lakh-3 lakh, depending on their case. However, the release of rehabilitation assistance has been linked with the conviction of the accused—which may take years. But irrespective of the status of conviction proceedings, rescued bonded labourers are eligible for immediate assistance of up to ₹20,000 by the district administration. The 19-member group is yet to receive the earmarked financial aid. “This is because of lack of documentation available with group members,” Parihar told Newslaundry.