Four-year-old Martin twists his tiny hands to demonstrate how he used to flip bricks that were laid out to dry in the kiln in which he and four other members of his family were employed in Rajanakunte police station limits at Yelahanka here.
His father, Peelaram, had been promised an advance and asked to relocate his family from a village in Bolangir district of Orissa to work in the kiln. “But the sardar [middleman] never gave us the money, and my family was working for Rs. 300 a week,” he told The Hindu, as he waited to give his testimony at the office of the Bangalore (Urban) Assistant Commissioner on Thursday. He said the family together produced 6,000 bricks in a week. Besides Martin, Peelaram's two older children, both school dropouts, and wife worked with him.
Mr. Peelaram's family is among 18 families (77 people in all) rescued from two units of the SLN Brick Kiln owned by S.K. Rajasekhar from suspected bonded labour in a raid by officials of the Labour Department, Revenue Department and members of the non-governmental organisation, International Justice Mission, on September 16 and 17. Fifty-nine of those rescued were suspected bonded labourers, and the remaining their dependents.
The cases came to light after Ashoka Muna, one of the labourers, brought it to the notice of the Collector and District Magistrate of Bolangir. He complained that his wife and infant son were “kept hostage” by the owner. Mr. Muna is the most qualified in the group having passed eighth class. The Collector sent S.S. Kumbhar, Labour Field Officer, to Karnataka to rescue the family.
All the labourers, from Bolangir and Nuapada districts, had similar stories to tell. They too had been paid or promised a small advance, receiving a paltry weekly sum to subsist on, confined to the kiln premises and threatened whenever they said they wished to leave. “They would let just one member of the family go shopping for groceries,” said Panchanon Bagh.
Teenage brothers Deb Singh and Keval Singh said that they were paid Rs. 100 each. “We ate broken rice we bought at Rs. 12 a kg, the kind they feed chicken,” Deb explained. Twelve-year-old Jeshna said that she was kept hostage by the owner when her parents went to Orissa, to ensure the family returned. She dropped out of school after fourth standard because her family relocated here.
Mr. Kumbhar told this correspondent that the two districts from where the labourers hailed were drought-prone and migration from there was high. (The Hindu on July 5, 2007, reported a similar bonded labour case in a brick kiln at Doddahagade village near Anekal, also migrants from Bolangir.)
Esther Daniel, Director of Administration, IJM, said that they hoped to see justice done for the men, women and children they believe to have been victims of violation of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976.
Heads of all the 18 families , Assistant Commissioner (Bangalore Urban-North) Gangadhar Swamy, special tahsildar of Yelahanka, and representatives of IJM revisited the kiln later on Thursday evening for another round of inquiry and documentation.