They were confined against their wishes and without wages

The last sight Khagapati Kumbhar (39) expected on Wednesday afternoon was a convoy of white government vehicles speeding towards the brick factory where he worked.

Mr. Kumbhar and 13 other migrant labourers from his village in the backward Bolangir district of Odisha had been confined against their wishes and without wages in the factory since June.

The convoy screeched to a halt, policemen jumped out and surrounded the factory. “Search the place; nobody must escape,” an official shouted. Somebody asked the confused and frightened labourers to gather their belongings. They grabbed whatever they could, stuffing them into jute sacks.

Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Kumbhar and his wife sat eating biscuits in a bus bound for the Nelamangala Tahsildar’s office. The owner of the factory Papanna and his son, Vinod, were nowhere to be seen, raising suspicions they might have been tipped off about the raid.

In all, seven women, seven men and four children were rescued by the team comprising the Tahsildar, police, labour officials and NGO activists. A case was registered under various sections of the IPC and the Bonded Labour System (abolition) Act 1976.

When Mr. Kumbhar made a phone call for help in mid-August, it was almost like a message in bottle cast into the sea. As days turned into weeks and months, he gave up hopes of ever returning to his home in Khaprakhol village.

As he slogged for 13 hours a day at the factory, the activist from his village he had telephoned worked diligently toward a solution. The activist, Sushant Panigrahi, transcribed Mr. Kumbhar’s message and sent it to the Bolangir District Magistrate

When the district administration did not respond, Mr. Panigrahi emailed the same message to activists across south India, including one in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

The mail was forwarded countless times until it found its way to a group of NGO activists in Bangalore. Careful not to alert the wrong people, they debated the best course in a discreet Facebook group. They met on October 5 and chalked out a strategy and on Wednesday they landed at Tahsildar R. Anil Kumar’s office demanding a rescue. Two hours later, all the 14 labourers and their children were deposing before Mr. Kumar. Dahinath Suna (37) told the Tahsildar: “Each family was paid Rs. 450 every 10 days for food and other incidentals.” For every 1.5 lakh bricks that they baked, the group was promised Rs. 25,000. That worked out to roughly Rs. 4,500 per person per month.

When Mr. Suna and Santosh Nag (35) asked for their outstanding wages in August, they said they were thrashed by Mr. Vinod and Mr. Papanna. They made several unsuccessful attempts to flee but were caught by guards and thrashed. “There would be a guard even when we went to have a bath,” claimed Poornima (20).

In the safety of the Tahsildar’s office, Khagapati Kumbhar was still looking jittery as though he expected to be caught and sent back to the factory. “We are Dalits. In our village we are not even allowed to draw water from the well or enter the temple,” he told The Hindu.

Their agent lured them by promising construction work in Bangalore. “At that time anything seemed better than living in our village,” he said. Now he can’t wait to get back.

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