Breaking free from the shackles of bonded labour

Bonded labourers leaving a brick kiln.  

Papamma, 26, who works in baby corn fields with her husband at Harohalli taluk of Ramanagara district, savours her freedom. Her life today is a far cry from the one she led barely six years ago, when she worked 13 hours a day for a pittance and barely enough rest. Papamma was a bonded labourer forced to work at a brick kiln in Kanakapura for ₹72 day. “We were only allowed to leave the kiln on Wednesday afternoons for a few hours to buy provisions,” she recalled.

More than 40 years after the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act was passed on February 9, 1976, Karnataka is still grappling with the rampant but hidden problem. There are some former bonded labourers like Papamma who are slowly rebuilding their lives and helping others.

Papamma was resigned to ‘her fate’ until six years ago, when she, 11 adults and and three infants, were rescued by the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU), CID, the District Administration and local police assisted by International Justice Mission (IJM). Since their rescue in 2014, all 12 survivors and their families have been enjoying their freedom. Two of them have been elected as community leaders and assist other survivors in availing of government benefits and also ensuring their well-being.

Papamma’s case is a landmark of sorts as it is the first time an accused had been convicted for trafficking under Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. “Life was very suffocating when we used to work at the brick kiln. Now, we can go out whenever we want and our children can go to school,” she said.

To ensure that more people like her are able to come out of the clutches of bonded labour and are rehabilitated successfully, a group of former bonded labourers have formed an association named Udayonmukha. Today, the association has 80 members, all of who used to be victims of human greed.

Another group member, Chandramma, was a bonded labourer in a sericulture factory in Sidlaghatta, Chickballapur district. The owners allegedly gave her an advance of ₹50,000 and confined her to the factory for six months. “My brother-in-law, my son and I were taken to the factory. My brother-in-law escaped after a week, but my son and I did not even see sunlight for several months. Our phones were snatched away and we had to wake up early in the morning and begin work that would go on till late at night,” she said. When she and her son tried to escape, the owners sent a few men to bring them back. “We were brutally beaten,” she said. Today, she works in a convention hall and does other daily wage jobs. As members of the association, she has been raising awareness on bonded labour and educating vulnerable members of society on labour laws.

As per data released by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in July 2018, Karnataka has rescued 66,281 bonded labourers, the highest in the country, since 1976. Prathima M., associate director, IJM, said this is an indication that the State government is proactive in addressing the crime. “Besides rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labourers, there is a need for the State government to initiate measures to deter these crimes,” she said. But for every Chandramma and Papamma, there are hundreds of men, women and even children trapped in bonded labour.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 10:42:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/breaking-free-from-the-shackles-of-bonded-labour/article30773225.ece

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