By Sarah Jacob:
Tucked in a pink sweater with a matching scarf, Meera Bai confidently narrated her story to a gathering of 100-odd people, using a microphone. She hadn’t rehearsed. The social worker who accompanied her had just asked her to go ahead and tell others what she had gone through. Seated on the stage along with other bonded labour survivors and two government officials, Meera Bai’s smile was radiant. Nine years of bondage hadn’t erased her beautiful smile!
Meera Bai was rescued from a brick kiln in Rajasamand, Rajasthan, in December 2017. A local grassroots organisation, Jai Bhim Vikas Shikshan Sansthan (JBVSS) had assisted the district administration in rescuing her and others. Today, she is a daily wage labourer – free and independent. Ask her how she feels now, she only folds her hands and says, “Main bahot khush hoon!” (I am very happy!)
She was part of the 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 to show their support for the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. The event organised by the National Coalition to Eradicate Bonded Labour and Human Trafficking (NCEBLHT) saw discussions by social workers and media personnel. Karan Rathore from Madhya Pradesh-based Jan Sahas, a grassroots organisation, talked about how children in tribal belts are usually sold for as less as Rs 5,000. In January 2017, Jan Sahas had assisted the local administration in rescuing Meena*. It was a case of bride trafficking. Meena too was present at the consultation and narrated her ordeal. She was physically and sexually assaulted by the man who ‘married’ her. He would hang her to the ceiling fan and beat her up. Even as everyone in the room got goosebumps, Meena went on confidently with her story, except for a tiny pause. Confidence was not alien to her. After she was rescued, as she appeared in the court, she strongly spoke up against her offender and appealed to the judge for a harsh punishment. Today, she speaks up for other victims of trafficking.
Like Meera Bai and Meena, more than 12,000 survivors of bonded labour and human trafficking signed letters to the Hon’ble Prime Minister showing their support for the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. Around 25 survivors presented these signatures at the event and urged the government and all political parties to press for the passing of the Bill. This Bill assures the rights and empowerment of victims of trafficking. For instance, it talks about time-bound relief and rehabilitation for all victims of trafficking. It also assures the government’s emphasis on aspects of livelihood, vocational training, education, healthcare, nutrition and mental health intervention for survivors of trafficking. In a democracy like India, this is a classic example of survivors speaking up for their own rights.
Gurjant, another bonded labour survivor, ended his story saying, “I now understand the true meaning of ‘azaadi’. Today, we are aware of our rights.”
*Name changed to protect the identity.