Road to freedom was a four-month long wait for them

Dhanalakshmi with her mother.   | Photo Credit: BASHKARAN N

Little Dhanalakshmi held out her tiny hand to show her missing left ring finger. Her finger got cut by a brick cutting wire, said her mother 22-year-old Sumathy.

It was a grim late evening on April 23. Outside the RDO’s office in Krishnagiri, five families of Irula tribes, including 10 children, aged between 1 and 6, tired, unwashed and hungry were seated at the verandah; men masked, women and children unmasked amid a raging pandemic. They had been rescued from a brick kiln in Madathaanur in Pochampally taluk of Krishnagiri district that day.

Earlier, an activist from the National Adivasi Solidarity Council (NASC), a grassroots organisation working with tribals called The Hindu, seeking help. “They were given food in the afternoon, but it’s late, and we are waiting for the RDO to come. The children are hungry. We need a release certificate. There’s COVID, how long can we wait here?” asked the voice at the other end of the line. The officials were huddled in a video conference with the Election Commission on the counting day arrangements, and the rescued were awaiting the arrival of the RDO for a release certificate. Late that night, they were formally released and sent home.

But, something went unrecorded. Their road to freedom was a four-month long wait, in violation of the Bonded Labour System(Abolition) Act 1976, and its standard operating procedures.

These families had unwittingly forfeited their freedoms for little advances either they took or their elders took five years ago in their villages in Chengam in Thiruvannamalai. Picked up by agents, they came to the brick kilns here five years ago. They were found by the field workers of the NASC during one of the field surveys in brick kiln areas looking for signs of bonded labour.

On January 6, 2021, the Council petitioned the Revenue Divisional Officer, Krishnagiri G. Karpagavalli seeking immediate rescue of bonded labourers from Irula tribes in a brick kiln in Pochampalli. Only that they did not give out the exact location, fearing a tip-off. The activists wanted to accompany the team for the rescue.

But the RDO insisted on the location. A month later, on February 12, the NASC petitioned the Collector and the same was forwarded to the RDO, again. No rescue was forthcoming. Finally, on March 12, the NASC approached the District Legal Services Authority(DLSA)seeking intervention through its judicial powers.

Under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, a rescue should be carried out within 24 hours of complaint, which can even be oral, says K.Krishnan, secretary, NASC. The SOP on bonded labour rescue insists on secrecy to ensure there is no elimination of evidence, and no tip-off to warn the offender. This is to keep the element of surprise, to eliminate tip-offs and leaks to the potential offenders, and create an atmosphere of confidence to enable to victims to speak and in the absence of the offender.

The RDO Karpagavalli enquired the families in the presence of the brick kiln manager, alleged the NASC advocate V. Ammu.

The prima facie, circumstances in which they are found are all tell-tale signs of bondedness, says Ms. Ammu. “Children born and brought up there, but were never sent to school. Even the elders don’t have Aadhaar card. They were not allowed to go for a family bereavement, were not allowed to vote,” says Ms. Ammu.

When contacted, RDO Karpagavalli asked, “How can we take action, without they divulging the location. I would have asked the local tahsildar to go verify.” Questioned about the potential leak of information, she asked, “how can there be no trust.?”

However, activists contended the issue was less about trust but about standard operating procedure that advises caution to eliminate leak and protect evidence.

“The information given to the tahsildar is given to the local VAO, who may be embedded and tip off the owners. We have experienced all this in many cases,’ says Ms. Ammu. Eventually, the rescue took place at the intervention of the magistrate of the Legal services authority after the NLSC threatened to move the High Court.

This is one of the rare cases, where the victims constantly asked for help. “From January onwards they kept asking when can they go home, everytime we went to the village to check on them. When one of the men asked the brick kiln owner to be allowed to go home to vote, they were told, their vote made no difference,” says Ms. Ammu.

FIRs have been filed against the brick kiln owners under sections 16, 17 and 18 of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976 and 374 of the IPC.

The SC in a 2012 order, had directed carrying out exhaustive surveys to identity bonded labour in such areas as brick kilns, quarries, crushing mines, beedi manufacturing carpet weaving . But in practice, it is left to the activists to survey the landscape based on tip-offs and follow up on official action, says Mr. Krishnan.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 8:59:03 AM |

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