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How a tribal girl rescued 6,000 migrant workers from 30 brick kilns in Tamil Nadu

Manasi Bariha with her father and younger sister.  

A tribal girl from Odisha’s Balangir district, whose courage led to the rescue of 6,000 migrant labourers trapped in brick kilns in Tamil Nadu during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, has received huge praise from the National Commission for Women.

Manasi Bariha, 19, has been hailed on the occasion of the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, was celebrated with the theme of ‘First responders to human trafficking’ on Thursday.

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Ms. Bariha, along with her father and younger sister, had taken an advance of ₹28,000 each to work at the GDM brick kiln at Pudhukuppam in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district. All three migrated for work in order to repay money that had been borrowed towards medical expenses for Ms. Bariha’s late mother.

By the time the lockdown was announced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the father and daughters had already worked for several months in return for a paltry weekly food bill of ₹250 a week.

When the family, along with other labourers, approached the brick kiln owner to be allowed to return home due to fears over contracting the novel coronavirus, they were not allowed. The workers, hailing mostly from Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi, struck a deal with the owner that they should be allowed to return if they finished their work in a week’s time. They then completed the allocated work at breakneck speed.

Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

The owner, however, backtracked on his promise and did not let the workers go. When the workers protested and tried to leave the brick kiln in the second week of May, the owner and his men thrashed all of them mercilessly. Even women and children were not spared.

“The attack was so brutal that many workers suffered back-bone and head injuries. The grievously injured labourers were not given medical attention,” said Ms. Bariha.

Despite the unprovoked attack, the girl kept recording the incident. She immediately shared photos, audio recordings and videos of the injured workers with WhatsApp contacts, appealing for help urgently. When the videos were shared widely on social media, a voluntary organisation reached out to the Tiruvallur district administration, leading to the expeditious rescue of the workers.

A complaint was lodged against the kiln operator. His accomplices were arrested but the owner managed to abscond.

Neenu Thomas, Director-Odisha Projects, International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO that works on issues related to human trafficking, said, “The Tamil Nadu government enquired about other brick kilns in the area and learnt about migrant workers trapped in deplorable conditions. The majority of them were Odia workers. Subsequently, workers in as many as 30 brick kilns in Tiruvallur were rescued and allotted special trains so they could return home comfortably.”

According to IJM, the TN government arranged about 150 buses and ferried 6,750 labourers, including the 355 labourers from the kiln in which Ms. Bariha was working, to board trains to their homes in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh between May 19 and 20.

“Many labourers are likely to be forced into debt for their survival, triggering conditions of bondage and even wageless labour in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the government as well as civil society should come together to address this vulnerability,” said Mr. Thomas.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 6:34:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/odisha-girl-wins-praise-from-national-commission-for-women/article32231636.ece

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