Their landlords insist repayment of loan by way of labour

Freedom has eluded Shankar Gangappa Mang (55) for the past 14 years as he struggles to repay a debt of Rs. 40,000 to his landlord, Kashinath Sangappa Savadi in P.K. Nagnur.

Vitthal Appasaheb Mang, another bonded labourer, has also been dreaming of freedom from his landlord, Srishail Shankar Savadi, to whom he owes Rs. 47,700, since September 2009.

Then there is Mahadev Dhondi Talwar (60), who has been struggling for three decades to clear his debt of Rs. 70,000. He wonders whether he will die a free man.

Dhondi Chidanand Talwar (30) owes Rs. 50,000 to his landlord, Prakash Gurappa Savadi, part of which he inherited from his late father. Basappa Vitthal Kamble (60), who works for Ramappa Shankar Savadi, is another in this long chain of debt-ridden bonded labourers. These are not stray cases, but in all there are 97 people who cannot extricate themselves from bonded labour in Nagnur in Athani Assembly constituency, which is the native village of the former Minister for Cooperation Lakshman Savadi, MLA. Incidentally, four of the landlords are related to the former Minister.

NGO helps them

Fortunately, these labourers are being helped by Jeevika (Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka), a non-governmental organisation that has been fighting against the bonded labour system in the State.

Though Jeevika activists identified nearly 250 bonded labourers in Athani taluk two years ago, the first concrete step was taken only in October last year when the NGO and the 97 labourers submitted separate petitions to the Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate of Belgaum, Chikkodi sub-divisional Magistrate and Assistant Commissioner, and Athani tahsildar, besides staging protests and dharnas.

But despite Assistant Commissioner Rudresh S. Ghali giving assurances to issue a “freedom letter” to the individuals and rehabilitate them, nothing has been done, said Shivganga Chandrappa Gadavar, Jeevika convener for Chikkodi Subdivision comprising Athani, Hukkeri, Chikkodi and Raibag taluks.

Twenty-one labourers from Nagnur , including Shankar Gangappa Mang, Vitthal Appasaheb Mang and Basappa Vitthal Kamble, who have been housed along with their family members at an anganwadi centre in Athani town since February 1 by tahsildar G.R. Shilvantar, said though they joined as farm labourers for annual wages ranging from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 some years ago, they were made bonded labourers as the advances collected to meet family requirements such as education and medical expenses went up beyond the agreed amount.

Their landlords levied huge interest on these advances over and above the wages and made them permanent debtors, insisting on repayment only by way of labour. The landlords even prevented them from taking up other jobs. This was no less than converting labourers into bonded labourers according to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, said coordinator of Jeevika and National Alliance on Bonded Labour Kiran Kamal Prasad. He added that the Assistant Commissioner could be under pressure given the family background of the landlords.

Ms. Gadavar said when the labourers had launched a dharna in October last year, the then Deputy Commissioner V. Anbukkumar had ordered an inquiry, following which the then tahsildar (on probation) C.L. Anand conducted an inquiry and submitted a report.

Deputy Commissioner N. Jayaram, who took charge in Belgaum on February 8, told The Hindu that he was aware of the matter but was yet to look into it. He said he would look into it and ascertain whether the debtors fit into the definition of bonded labour, and act accordingly.

Mr. Prasad said the district administration should rehabilitate all bonded labourers identified by Jeevika.

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