21 bonded labourers escaped in February from their landlords and they are yet to get State help

Appasab Kamane Madar (65), and Somaling Mallappa Avale (55) are among many who were forced illegally to serve as bonded labourers for two decades and are now leading a life of hopelessness and despair.

For them, the government seems subservient to the elite and influential. So is the case with the local administration, which after so long has yet to take any action. They have no idea if their lives even matter to the government, or whether it will even make good on its promises of social justice.

On Saturday, Mr. Madar, Mr. Avale, Basappa Vittal Kamble and four other alleged bonded labourers rushed all the way from Athani to appear before the Assistant Commissioner (Rudresh S. Ghali) and Subdivisional Magistrate here.

They were among 21 labourers, all from Naganur P.K. and adjoining hamlets, who escaped in February and live now in an anganwadi centre at Athani. They registered complaints with the Athani police with a plea to free them from bonded labour and clutches of four landlords from Naganur P.K., following which the Subdivisional magistrate issued notices to all 22 labourers and four landlords to appear before his court on Saturday.

However, all of them were instructed to return. Mr. Ghali’s staff informed them that he was out of town, and the appearance was postponed to December 21.

They told The Hindu their story. Mr. Avale’s story began with a loan of Rs. 4,000 taken from Annappa Channappa Savadi of Naganur P.K. in 1979, to be repaid in the form of “only labour, 24x7” at the landlord’s farmhouse. Every year, Mr. Avale needed to take a new loan from the landlord, and the interest piled on, eventually turning Mr. Avale into a full-time bonded labourer. As of now, the total amount to be repaid stands at Rs. 1 lakh, to be returned in four equal instalments in four years.

Twenty other labourers have similar stories of the time spent working under different landlords in Naganur P.K.

Gurunath Basappa Kamble, who also escaped, said: “only God knows the mathematics of landlords.” He took a loan of Rs. 18,000 for two years (in 2008 and 2009), and worked in the fields of a landlord in Naganur P.K. for two years; but the interest amount shot up by Rs. 14,000. He wanted to leave by paying the amount, but the landlord forced him to pay only in labour.

According to Mr. Kamble, there are 97 such labourers who went into bondage.

In February, 21 of them escaped and are struggling for their freedom with the support of Jeevika (Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka), an NGO that has been fighting against the bonded labour system in the State. The National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Belgaum Deputy Commissioner, following which the tahsildar inquired into a few cases.

Jeevika’s district convener Basavaraj Hanchinmani said the labourers only wanted their freedom.

They have lost all hope of getting justice, and some of them are quite old. Is it possible that the delay in delivering justice perhaps stems from the fact that at least four landlords are close relatives of the former Minister, Laxman Savadi?

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