This will be the first August 15 in 22 long years that Banarasi and Darshan Singh would be celebrating with their family members as ‘free’ Indians.

The couple from Punjab have been working as bonded labourers (at a rice mill factory in Punjab) for over two decades along with their children and grandchildren, who were born into this form of modern slavery.

Rescued this June, the couple and their family members are now residing at a rehabilitation centre in Punjab.

“We are happy be to able to breathe free air. We now only want our wages for the past 20 years to be paid and an opportunity for our two sons to get good jobs and a chance for our grandchildren to be able to study,” said Darshan Singh speaking at a press conference organised in the city on Tuesday to highlight the plight of the many bonded labourers across the country still entangled in this form of exploitation.

“So far no action has been taken against the owner who enslaved three generations of Darshan Singh’s family, nor has any rehabilitation help been given by the State Government,” said activists from Bandhua 1947, a national advocacy campaign working on the issue who had also organised the conference.

The group has also demanded that Banarasi and Darshan – and thousands of others like them – should receive the Rs. 20,000 in rehabilitation money that they are entitled to under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSA), 1976.

“Released bonded labourers also need livelihood training and empowerment to ensure that they do not fall back into the cycle of slavery,” said D. Raja, CPI MP. “It is a disgrace and a shame that there is still bonded labour in modern India,” he added.

Banarasi, recalling her ordeal as a bonded labour, said: “Several times I tried to send my children and grandchildren away but the owner would not allow it. He in fact made them work round the clock. He never gave us any information on our wages. Whenever we pressed for our release or wages he would give us Rs. 1,000 and then the circle of debt and forced labour would continue. Now after half a lifetime of bonded labour our family is finally free. But we now need the support of the Government to continue to be free citizens of the country.”

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