By Sarah Jacob
Huffing and panting, they reached their village in Sundargarh, Odisha. They had travelled 13 hours escaping the brutality. They could not gather the other seven men trapped in the brick kiln they were working in. They just had to run for their lives. One of them had to be hospitalized immediately. The gruesome owner had splashed acid on him, all because the group of labourers asked for wages. One of the seven men left behind had four of his fingers cut – a sign of ghastly violence on display.
In September, these 12 men were trafficked to Vizinagaram in Andhra Pradesh under the pretext of good work. They were promised fair wages. Little did they know their lives would take a 180-degree turn for the worse. One of the labourers, who managed to escape, spoke to Orissa Post, “When we asked for the rest amount, the owner refused. He also threw acid on one of our co-workers and cut off another’s fingers.” The family members of those trapped in the kiln have approached the officials to help secure their release from bonded labour.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 2016, 42 people are trafficked every day. That is, 2 people trafficked every hour. In 2016, around 48% of the rescued victims had been trafficked for forced labour, domestic servitude and beggary. The question usually boils down to India’s status as the world’s largest democracy. Even after 70 years of independence, trafficking for labour as an organised crime seems to be rising.
These Odisha labourers are only a few of the 1.1 crore bonded labourers in our country. Yes, 1.1 crore. Wondering whether bonded labour still exists? Oh, yes, it does. Bonded labour is an oppressive form of forced labour where, due to a debt or other obligations (customary, caste-based, economic consideration), the labourer forfeits certain basic rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Indian Constitution like freedom of movement, right to move freely, right to receive the legal minimum wages and the right to sell goods and services at market value. Besides these restrictions, bonded labourers often experience physical violence, brute force, verbal abuse and sexual violence.
At the recent National Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Bonded Labour and Human Trafficking, in Delhi, where more than 100 participants (survivors, community leaders and civil society organizations) gathered, Gurjant Singh, a bonded labour survivor, said, “I worked at a place where I didn’t know the difference between day and night. We lived in constant fear.” Today, Gurjant is free. But, what about the others still trapped?
As we gear towards a year of elections – the year that decides who will govern India for the next five years, the bonded labour survivors have just one question – will this crime ever be eradicated?