Exactly a year ago, 78 migrants working in bonded debt in brick kilns in Jammu and Kashmir made a desperate bid to start a new life. Sahodara Bai who had worked at the kiln with her husband and eight children for 25 years returned from a rare visit back to her village in the plains in Chhattisgarh with a pamphlet.

“The parchaa [pamphlet] had the name and phone number of a sanstha [organisation]. It said the sanstha would help bonded workers. I was the only one with a mobile phone. I called and gave our details. The next day a few of us walked up a hill nearby where the labour contractor Raju and other staff could not see us and I made a list of all of the names,” said Ganesh Ram Satnami, 43, one of only two among the workers at the OMS kiln at Bhakar in Rajouri, 160 km from Jammu, who could write.

The next three months were frantic. Pyarelal Diwakar, the activist who had got the pamphlets distributed in villages near the workers’ homes in Jangjir Champa district in north Chhattisgarh, has been trying to set up a NGO since the last few years but has not been able to get it registered. He has worked as a mason, a compounder, a labour contractor and even as a brick kiln worker for some years. After Mr. Diwakar reached Bhakar and complained to the tehsildar that 13 families at OMS kiln were working against bonded debt, the tehsildar intervened and allowed seven families, including Sahodara Bai’s family, to leave. But the rest had to stay back.

“It did not seem that all the families were in debt or bonded,” said Rajendra Pal, the tehsildar. None of the families were given a ‘release certificate’ which entitles them to Rs. 20,000 and state assistance to acquire land or skill-based alternative means of livelihood under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) (BLA) Act 1976. “The tehsildar had said he would send the certificates later, but he never did. I came back to Janjgir with 34 workers,” said Mr. Diwakar.

Continuing struggle

Ganesh Ram Satnami was insistent about leaving the kiln. “Raju, the contractor, threatened me that I was trying to be a leader. He said he will put us in bori [sacks] and throw us in the river. Policemen came to the kiln twice. They would sip tea with our employers and go back,” he said.

In a meeting in June, at Sundarbani market in Rajouri where Mr. Satnami met this correspondent without the knowledge of his employers, he said the kiln-owner was not allowing his wife and five children to leave because they had a debt of Rs. 27,000 after working eight years. “Every year we work in kilns in Naushera and Araspura near Jammu for eight months from October till May. In June the bhattawalas load us into buses and send us to Srinagar to work in kilns there for four months,” he said.

A landless Dalit from Janjgir Champa, Ganesh Ram said he started working in brick kilns with his parents in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh when he was 11. After working in kilns in MP all his youth, Mr. Satnami worked in kilns in Punjab with his wife and was sold to a kiln-owner in Jammu eight years back. “I want to go back home and write stories for films. I have two stories. I even called a music director from my mobile after getting his number from a calendar in a shop,” he said.

At the OMS kiln the next day, most workers narrated similar histories of having gone in debt from one brick kiln to another since years. “We give them food expenses but adjust this against their previous debt and expenses at the end of nine months. For instance, we bought Naveen Ram from a kiln owner in Srinagar last year for Rs. 91,460. He owes us Rs. 1,05,470 now,” said accountant Ram Pal, pulling out a register.

It is a similar system of advances and mounting debt at most brick kilns across India, says activist Sudhir Katiyar of Prayas Centre for Labour Research & Action who have tried to organise migrant labourers to demand minimum wages in brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, UP.

“Work starts late, no monthly wages are paid. Often workers end up acquiring debt within the first month. Kiln owners usually make Re. 1 profit per brick which comes to Rs. 60 lakh on an average annually,” says Mr. Katiyar.

At Janjgir Champa

An Expert Group set up under S.A. Sankaran in 2001 recommended that release and rehabilitation be done within a week or else workers will be forced to go back. Ganesh Ram and the five remaining families at the kiln managed to leave with ‘release certificates’ after this correspondent met the Rajouri District Collector Sougat Biswas and he intervened. But back in his village in Chhattisgarh, Ganesh Ram got no assistance to realise the claims the ‘release certificate’ entitled him to — ration cards on a priority basis, patta for house under schemes such as Indira Awas Yojana, and alternate means and assets for livelihood, including agricultural land – even after several rounds of the Collectorate, the Labour Office and even Chief Minister Raman Singh’s office last August.

In December, Ganesh Ram contracted fever and died. No assistance had arrived by then. Sahodara Bai and 154 other families, which returned in debt from Haryana, Punjab, and MP, but did not have ‘release certificates’ to prove their claims are now preparing to go back to work in kilns.

Since 2010, the District Labour Office in Janjgir Champa alone has received 152 complaints regarding 2,324 workers in bonded debt in kilns and at construction sites. Only 103 of these workers — less than five percent — possessed ‘release certificates’ under which they could claim state assistance. Even then the workers’ claims seem to be up against a wall. “Workers claim they are bonded because they know if they complain about low wages or violence no one will listen to them. Once 12-13 workers came to my office and asked for being released. How could they have been bonded if they were standing in my office?” said a labour official in Raipur.

(The reporter worked on this story as part of a Media Fellowship with the National Foundation for India.)