Bonded Labour – Slavery without chains

I entered the small photo exhibition organised by International Justice Mission (IJM) as a sceptical man. I was of the impression that IJM is any other NGO trying to showcase their work, and I have to attend this exhibition regardless, as a part of my assignment. But my misgivings started to evaporate as I stepped into the hall.

The stories that those photos spoke were straightforward. As a Chinese proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, the candid photographs shown there, were quite evocative. Simple captions written by Belinda Liu, a volunteer working with IJM, conveyed without much ado one stark truth, “Bonded labour does not just exist in India, it is perpetrated with impunity.” As we go through photo after photo a single theme runs through them, the sufferings and brutality these unfortunate victims face at the hands of their cruel masters. Almost all of them are victims of their own innocence and illiteracy, and the modus operandi in enslaving them is always same. They are first enticed to take a loan, some times as paltry as Rs. 200, and in few months this amount is inflated to exorbitant levels with unreasonably high interest rates. Then these gullible people are convinced that they owe huge amounts of money to the lender and to clear this debt they have to work for the lender, almost always for free. As explained by the Community Relations Manager of IJM, Kural Amuthan, most of the victims of bonded labour are people from lesser privileged communities, like those from scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other indigenous tribal communities. He says that according to a government survey 86.6 per cent of the bonded labourers, throughout the nation, belong to the SC and ST communities and almost all the victims are illiterate.

The case of Jayaram* (55) is one such. He was induced to take a loan of Rs. 200 in his need, and was enslaved every since. He was given a daily salary of six rupees and was forced to work for 12 to 16 hours a day. When he protested, he was cruelly punished by puncturing his knee with a needle, used to stitch beige bags, along with abusive words reminding him his caste status. He was rescued by IJM and along with his wife he runs a small shop in his village. The case of Chinnamma* (52) is even more deplorable. Her request for a leave, of one day, from a rice mill in Kanchipuram to attend her blind husband’s funeral in her village, was denied by her master who said that there is no need for her to go and that; others will ‘dispose off’ his body. She too was rescued by IJM.

IJM was founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, to combat the evils of bonded labour, slavery and human trafficking. Kural explained that, since it started its work in India IJM is more active in South India with Chennai and Bangalore as their centres where they tackle mainly the issue of bonded labour and slavery. They also have offices in Mumbai and Kolkata which are actively involved in tackling female trafficking. Kural also explains how IJM helps local authorities in finding and setting bonded labour free. He said that once a labourer is freed from the clutches of this cruel situation he is given a release certificate by Revenue Division Officer and are given a sum of Rs. 20,000/- as a part of financial assistance for their rehabilitation. All this is done under, Bonded labour system (Abolition) Act of 1976. IJM does not limit its activity to freeing the victims; it also takes care of the recently freed bonded labourers by way of training them and settling them into gainful ventures so that they can lead a fruitful and dignified life. This constant monitoring is maintained for the duration of two years.

Karul also explained, citing the case of Arjun* (a third generation bonded labourer born into the slavery and trying to repay a debt of Rs.20 that his grand father took during a famine. He still had to pay Rs.20,000 when he was freed) that since these people spent a lot of time under strict supervision and suppression, they do not have enough psychological stability and are not ready to take care of their own lives. They have to be gradually educated and their fear of mingling with others removed. They also need assistance to make a habit of taking individual decisions, which normal citizens take for granted, with out hesitation.

Belinda Liu, with her few months of experience in India, expresses her dismay at the complete lack of awareness in the labourers and their children (who are never allowed to read or go to school) that they are being deprived of their basic rights. This also shows how morally deprived the slave masters are and the requirement for public as such to address this issue, she says.

The photograph depicting Radha* (8) running towards the IJM activists and away from work, gives a picture of what that little soul thinks of freedom that awaits her. Also the picture of a smiling Jayaram and his wife standing before their own shop, setup with government assistance, conveys the message that words can hardly capture.

* Names of victims are changed and pictures are not uploaded to  respect their privacy.

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