Om Prakash saw that they got freedom with the help of two organisations
Ashok Kumar, one of the older sons of Hira Bai and Kesu Ram, suffered a seizure on platform number 2 of the Hazrat Nizammudin Railway Station here mid-Saturday morning. His body trembled as Railway doctors administered an injection to calm him. His eight siblings, nieces and nephews looked over his frail body that was already battling the harsh Delhi winter.
Somebody alerted the family that an ambulance had arrived but Hira Bai (60) was adamant and refused to allow her son to be taken to the hospital. “What if they come for him?” she asked. “We cannot leave him behind.” Her apprehensions were understandable. After several years as a bonded labourer working in brick kilns in Jammu and Kashmir, all that the elderly woman wanted was for her family to stick together till they complete their journey back home to Sendri in Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh. Rumour had it that some locals from Jammu have trailed the group.
Hira Bai is one among 117 people – “purchased” for Rs. 12 lakh with advances of Rs. 10,000 per family -- who were extracted from a brick kiln this past Wednesday in a rescue operation by district officials in Jammu’s Kathua district with the help of two organisations: the International Justice Mission (IJM) and Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ). She claims she has been in bondage only for 11 years, yet, her 19-year-old son Jeetu says he was born in Jammu and has never been to his home State. Nor has he ever been on a train or seen a tea bag, says his mother.
On platform number 2 on Saturday was the transient life of 23 families: a small television wrapped in a bed sheet, a pedestal fan, an open pressure cooker, shawls and clothes tied together hurriedly. Of the 117 labourers were 48 children, among them five-day-old Sumir, who was born a day before his parents were rescued from the facility.
Thirty-one-year-old Om Prakash, the unofficial leader of the group, is the reason for the new found freedom of these labourers. Against all odds, he crossed the border to Phillaur in Punjab to touch base with a VSJ representative, who initiated the rescue operation. He was threatened by the brick kiln owners that his limbs will be chopped off if he refused to work. “I hid under the seat of a Matador bus since nearly 10 people came looking for us at the border. I faked a chest pain and bent down so no one sees me,” he says. “I had a card of the NGO ‘sahib’ from before so I knew where to go.”
Men and women who spoke to The Hindu, referred to extreme brutality in the facilities they worked at: close surveillance even when women needed to use the toilets and meagre payment of Rs. 500 per week for four people. On a normal day, the group worked from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., making nearly 3,000 bricks a day.
On February 12, acting on Om Prakash’s complaint, representatives from VSJ and IJM approached the district administration and pointed out that this was a clear case of human trafficking and bonded labour. “There was complete apathy from government officials, and when we rescued the labourers and asked them if they wanted to leave, an overwhelming majority said yes,” says IJM’s Mathew Joji, who was part of the operation. “Police officials stood silent as owners gathered around the labourers and attempted to intimidate them. We were forced to form a human barrier to protect the victims from the owners.”
Despite interventions by NGO workers, district officials in Jammu refused to declare them bonded labourers under the law nor issue release certificates that will provide essential protection. Instead, they were handed a lump sum of Rs. 5000 that works out to a meagre sum of Rs. 3 per meal per person.
Yet, on that platform in one of Delhi’s major stations, it was not a time to recollect the past but look forward to a happier future. Rath Ram, who will return to Balod after 12 years in captivity, was eager to reunite with his brother who had doggedly pursued his case in Chhattisgarh with various government officials. “My family and I left with whatever we could get hold off. What I worry about is people coming in search of us,” he says.
Some minutes later with all families on board, a pair of hands wearing bangles opened a window shutter and hung a tiny pair of trousers out to dry. The train slowly pulled out off the platform.