Ninety-one families of Dalits from Gangooru village in Arakalgudu taluk, who were freed from bonded labour in 1994, have been waiting for compensation from the government. For the last nineteen years, they have received hundreds of assurances from elected representatives and administration, but none has kept to it.
These families were working for landlords for years to clear dues borrowed for various purposes. Many had worked for over 25 to 30 years only to clear their loans.
They were freed by the district administration in 1994, after the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti activists brought this issue to the fore.
Puttaswamy, now 35, recalls how he and his younger sister worked as bonded labourers with a landlord to clear dues of Rs. 100 and Rs. 50 per year, respectively. Then, the labour of a child was Rs. 50 to Rs. 150 for one year.
Soon after they were freed, Mahendra Jain, then Deputy Commissioner of Hassan, assured them land as compensation. Each family was provided with a cow and a buffalo, which was in no way sufficient to feed the families.
Worse, they had to take cattle to nearby forest areas for grazing, attracting the wrath of Forest Department officials. On the other hand, the landlords refused to offer them work in their fields as they were unhappy with the row over the bonded labour system.
“They did not call us for work for three to four years. Though they started offering us work later, it was not on a regular basis. Now, most of us go to far-flung places for work,” said Kanaiah, who was once a bonded labourer. In recent years, a couple of families have managed to take up tenant farming. They till others’ land and pay annual rent to the owners.
“We don’t want money, we need land,” said Kanaiah. By and large this is the demand of all families. On two occasions, the district administration had identified land for allotment to these families, but the process stopped there.
The previous Deputy Commissioner K.P. Mohan Raj, who was recently transferred to Koppal, had assured the families suitable land. Land in Sakleshpur taluk was identified for the purpose, but eve this has not materialised following litigation.
“The court has asked us to maintain status quo,” said an official. The hope of land remains a distant dream for the residents of Gangooru.