New Delhi: Raj Kumar’s wounds are yet to heal. He cannot pick up heavy weights anymore. He is not able to walk long distances and gets tired easily. Two years ago, Kumar and his wife were among 40 labourers -- the number includes women and children -- from Chhattisgarh who were taken to Srinagar in Kashmir on the pretext of good wages. Since then, they were confined, forced to work without wages and beaten up whenever they demanded wages, till they were rescued from a brick kiln in Palwal, Haryana. Kumar was a bonded labourer.
Kumar was beaten with sticks by his contractor and his associates when he asked for money. He didn’t budge and kept insisting till he bled, fell to the ground and couldn’t walk. He was rescued by fellow labourers.
Raj Kumar shows his injured legs.
A year and a half ago, Kumar’s wife, Triveni, had given birth to a baby with a disability. This time round, Kumar, who had been unpaid for two years, was determined to get what was his due so that he could treat his son whose legs do not function normally.
“We were not allowed to move. If we had to go to a market, a security guard was sent along who would keep an eagle eye on us. We were not allowed to visit our hometown because they were afraid that we might not come back, which was true,” said Aasma, a rescued woman bonded labourer.
Over the past two years, these bonded labourers have been shuttling between Srinagar and Haryana, based on the work requirements. “Whenever we would ask for money, they would say that we bought you for money and now we are left with no money to pay you. If we insisted or cried, they (contractors) would hit us ruthlessly and throw us out,” said Triveni, who is six months pregnant.
A six-month pregnant Triveni with her disabled son.
With the help of a team from National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour, some of these labourers were given shelter in a Doss house (Rain Basera) near Sarai Kale Khan in Delhi, where Newsclick met them.
Triveni shared how she and other women were forced to work during their pregnancy. They were forced to pick up heavy weights, usually bricks, and any denial or disagreement would lead to violence by their contractor. According to her, the violence and abuse was just a tool used to keep them working.
Every 20 days, a sum of Rs. 1,500 would be given to a group of four people, which amounted to Rs. 375 each. “This money was given to us for food. They knew we would die without food and there was no one to work but us. So, this money was an obligation and a necessity too,” said Rani.
And it wasn’t just her. The other 40 labourers from Chhattisgarh narrated the same story of despair, violence and the way they were snared into working for long hours without wages.
Ten days ago, two labourers who were accompanied by a security guard to a market for buying logs of wood. They escaped and reached Delhi. In the city, they met Nirmal Gorana, the convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour. Gorana then sent his team with a lawyer to Palwal and rescued the other labourers.
Although abolished in 1976, bonded labour is still prevalent in India. Usually, a dealer would find people from villages and offer them jobs, mostly at brick kilns and in the agricultural sector for some money, which they would be asked to repay by working. However, they are forced to work for a lifetime till they are able to pay back the money due to very low wages or no wages. Meanwhile, they are confined and kept under scrutiny to make sure that they don’t flee.
The labourers, who are below poverty line, get easily trapped in the network of bonded labour on the pretext of good wages.
“This is trafficking. These poor people with no resources are trapped on the pretext of a good life and money and are trafficked and taken to faraway places. They are called bonded labourers because they are forced to work against their will,” said Gorana.
Gorana said his team had rescued over 20,000 bonded labourers since 2012 – underlying the prevalence of a banned practice.
To rescue the labourers, Gorana sent a team of six people and volunteers, including a lawyer who met Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Hathin, a village in Haryana’s Palwal district. “The SDM formed a team of police which, along with our team, decided to rescue the labourers. But before that, they made the labourers sign on a blank piece of paper,” said Gorana.
The labourers were told that signing a piece of blank paper would help them reach home and they did, till Gorana’s lawyer raised an issue and made sure that a genuine statement is filed.
Rescue but no Release
Even though the practice of bonded labour is banned, the SDM of Palwal has not yet issued a release certificate to the rescued labourers. Without the certificate, the freed labourers are not eligible for rehabilitation which includes compensation and benefits given under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.
For the past 10 days, Gorana and his team have been calling the SDM and DM but there has been no response. “We are filing a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and if nothing happens still, we will move court,” Gorana told Newsclick.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 reads: “On the commencement of this Act, the bonded labour system shall stand abolished and every bonded labourer shall, on such commencement, stand feed and discharged from any obligation to render any bonded labour.”
As per a revamped Central government scheme for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers in 2016, each labourer is supposed to get immediate financial aid of Rs 20,000 which the Centre and state government splits equally.
Men are entitled to financial aid of Rs 1 lakh, while women and children are entitled to 2 lakh. In special cases, women, transgenders, disabled persons and children rescued from sexual exploitation and trafficking are given financial aid of Rs 3 lakh.
However, these benefits cannot be availed without a release certificate. In 2018, around 200 rescued labourers were not given release certificates and were ineligible to avail financial compensation and benefits.
“After getting free from the clutches of bondage these release certificates play an important role in the rehabilitation of bonded labourers. Else, they will fall in the same trap,” Gorana told NewsClick.