Bhopal: In a first such instance, more than 300 tribal migrant labourers hailing from Madhya Pradesh’s (MP) Barwani district allegedly pushed into bonded labour at sugarcane mills of Maharashtra and Karnataka were recently rescued by NGO and civil rights group Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS).
During their four-month employment at these mills, a 16-year-old minor was allegedly gang-raped while nearly all of them were denied wages despite slogging for 16-18 hours a day.
Out of the 309 rescued workers, 87 were women and 127 children. According to JADS, 83 labourers, including 27 kids and 30 women, employed with Nirani Sugars Limited, located in Karnataka’s Belagavi district and owned by Bharatiya Janata Party MLA and state minister for large and medium industries Murugesh Nirani, since last October were rescued.
Another 227 labourers, including 57 women and 87 children, were rescued from Maharashtra’s Bagalkot, Kolhapur, Satara and Pune districts, according to a senior official of the Barwani labour court.
Born in penury, tribals and Dalits in MP’s Nimar region, comprising Barwani, Jhabua, Dhar, Khargone and Alirajpur districts, are forced to migrate for work in Maharashtra and Gujarat or even as far as Kerala. During the sugar cane harvesting season in October-March, lakhs of couples migrate to work as cutters. The 309 rescued labourers this time were largely from Barwani’s Pati block, abutting Maharashtra.
16-year-old pregnant girl ‘gang-raped’
One of the rescued labourers, a 16-year-old minor girl who was four-month pregnant and hails from Seoni village of Barwani narrated a horrific tale of sexual abuse. According to a police report, the girl and her husband had migrated to work at a sugar cane farm in Satara, Maharashtra, for the first time.
In tribal blocks, where migration for work is very common, families marry off their children at a young age as sugar cane contractors prefer labourer couples. The contractor is a well-connected villager who reaches out to prospective labourers from nearby areas and districts. With frequent droughts and failing crops, many couples prefer to migrate for work despite having acres of farmland.
Traditionally, the contractor hires a couple as a single unit, or Ek Koyta, and pays them Uchal (lumpsum) in advance ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 for two to four months.
The girl and her husband too were paid Rs 40,000 by contractors Ganesh Bhosle and Jeetu Bhosle of Maharashtra’s Beed district last October.
In a two-page First Information Report (FIR) registered with the Barwani police, the girl alleged that the two contractors and one of their accomplices had abducted and gang-raped her multiple times, leading to miscarriage. “When I set out to fetch water at 4 am, Ganesh and Bhosle abducted me and took me to the forest where another man joined them. They forced themselves on me after making me consume something after which I fell unconscious,” she alleged in the FIR.
The three men had also put some liquid in her private parts which caused itching and painful boils, the girl further alleged. “I was soaked in blood owing to the miscarriage when one of the rapist contractors brought me to the labour camp claiming he had found her in a nearby village. He had threatened to kill my husband and fellow villagers if I complained to the police.”
According to the FIR, she was in “pain even after a week of the incident and bleeding profusely but the ruthless contractors showed no mercy and we were forced to work”. On January 14, they allegedly abducted her again and raped her. “They didn’t allow us to go to the police station.”
Despite the death threats, the victim shared her ordeal with her husband, who sought help from a Barwani-based NGO. Three days after returning to Barwani, she lodged the FIR
against the three men under Sections 376, 376 (2), 376 D, 506 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code and two Sections of the POCSO Act at Pati Police Station on February 17.
Pati Police Station SHO Ramkrishn Lovanshi told Newsclick over the phone that “since the crime had taken place under the jurisdiction of Bhuj Police Station of Satara district of Maharashtra, after consulting with the senior officers, I have forwarded the case diary to the police station”.
Sexual abuse of cane labours ‘open secret’
Several such cases of sexual abuse of cane cutters go unreported. According to Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, “Rape of migrant labourers at the workplace is an open secret. Mostly, contractors lure illiterate labourers who are at their mercy at the workplace.”
Migrant workers “hardly gather the courage to stand against contractors fearing loss of livelihood and life,” Peter told Newsclick adding, “They also fear of not being hired by another contractor if they report such cases. Complaints like those in the Barwani and Khargone cases are a rarity.”
The ordeal of sugar cane cutters came to the fore in 2019 after the media reported an unusually high rate of hysterectomy among women in Beed, especially those who migrate to neighbouring districts and states to work. Acting promptly on the media reports, the Maharashtra government ordered a probe to look into the allegations of women sugar cane cutters in June 2019. However, a report is still awaited.
6 women, including 3 minors raped in Belagavi
A 29-year-old woman from Barwani’s adjoining Khargone district who, along with her two sisters and 24 fellow villagers, were hired to work in the sugar cane fields of Belagavi had also lodged a sexual abuse complaint at Chainpur Police Station in Khargone.
According to an FIR registered 27 days after her complaint, the woman and five others, including three minors, were allegedly raped by two contractors and an accomplice. “They didn’t even spare my minor sister. They abducted the girls from the fields at their will, sexually abused them and left them with a warning. Shockingly, both the Karnataka and the Khargone police were trying to shield the contractors,” she alleged.
A couple’s typical workday starts around 6 am with the woman getting up at 4 am to cook for the entire family before setting out for work. The children are left behind in shanties near the sugar cane farms as their parents toil.
The woman, her sisters and the fellow villagers were offered Rs 20,000 each with a verbal assurance of two-month work—but they were never paid. “They wanted to kill and bury the labourers after they protested the sexual abuse. A phone call from a senior official of the Karnataka police saved them,” Antim Shitole (36), a social worker who travelled more than 1,200 km overnight after one of the labourers sought help, told Newsclick. He claimed to have sold his wife’s jewellery worth Rs 27,000 to book a vehicle to bring the migrant workers back.
More than a month later, another bunch of 83 labourers who hail from Pati were rescued from Belagavi.
In a written complaint to Barwani district collectors and the police on February 18, the rescued labourers, hailing from Kandara, Udabgarh and Semali villages, alleged that contractors Ashok Shinde, Kalu Mukaddam and Shyam of Beed hired 56 labourers between Dussehra and Diwali last year against an advance payment of Rs 20,000 to each for three months’ work at the Belagavi sugar cane factory.
“We were promised eight hours of work for Rs 400 a day and paid Rs 20,000 in advance. However, we were forced to work 18 hours a day for a mere Rs 20-Rs 40. Each family was provided 40 kg rice for three months,” Kailash Pratap, one of the workers, told Newsclick.
After three months, when three labourers demanded payment of the remaining amount on behalf of their fellow workers, the contractor, Shyam took them to the Nirani Sugars factory. “An official at the factory demanded Rs 2 lakh if we want to return home. When we resisted, Shyam seized our mobile phones, snatched Rs 1,000 in cash and held us hostage for almost a week,” Jadiya, one of three labourers who was taken hostage, told Newsclick.
Subsequently, the labourers informed their relatives in the villages who sought help from JADS. “Had the NGO not rescued the labourers, some untoward incidents might have occurred,” JADS member Harsing Jamre told Newsclick over the phone. “The district administration and the police should take prompt action against the contractors and also provide assistance to the rescued labourers,” he demanded.
Madhuri Krishnaswamy, an activist within JADS—which is working for tribals and Dalits for almost two decades—said that an estimated 10-12 lakh people, including pregnant and lactating women, migrate from Nimar to Maharashtra and border areas of Karnataka to work as sugar cane cutters.
“Hailing from a region that is perennially drought-hit and lacks employment avenues, the tribals and Dalits of Nimar live in abject poverty and rely on sugar cane cutting for livelihood,” Krishnaswamy told Newsclick. “But they were hired as bonded labour and the women were abused by the contractors. The police and the district administration didn’t take action as the majority of the mills and sugar cane fields are owned by politicians.”
KS Mujalda, an official at the Barwani labour court, said, “After we received two complaints of bonded labour, more than 300 labourers were rescued. We are preparing a file that will be sent to the respective districts to obtain the rescue certificates. We will also pressure the company to clear the dues of the labourers.”