Poor Vigilance checks make TN hotbed of bonded labour

Chennai: Every time someone in Pureet Kata's village said they were heading to Kantabanji railway station, he felt a sense of dread and hope. Trepidation, because many of the faces that left he never saw again, and anticipation because the promises of a better life may be true.

With its near-deserted platform, there is little to distinguish the west Odisha railway station from other small town stations. But when 28-year-old Pureet and his wife landed there on a November evening in 2014, it was packed with people. All of them were waiting for the train that would change the course of their lives.

"The agent didn't tell us where we would be heading to. He gave us Rs 17,000 as loan and said we could work for six months to pay it back," recalls Pureet. Everyone in the station that night had a similar narrative - a loan to pay , a stomach to feed and hope of making a fortune in the city.

Two years later, Pureet and his wife were among 548 bonded labourers rescued from a brick kiln in Tiruvallur in Tamil Nadu. His story was among the many recorded for a survey undertaken by human rights organisation International Justice Mission (IJM). Most of these labourers, like Pureet, hail from west Odisha.

The organisation interviewed 901 people, including 322 women and 264 children, rescued from four different brick kilns in Tiruvallur in the past four years. At least 646 of them turned out to be bonded labourers. "The labourers were paid an average of `140 per week and were forced to work an average of 15 hours per day," says Mathew Joji, IJM spokesman.

Poverty, lack of employment opportunities and poor access to credit were among the reasons cited by labourers for being pushed into bondage. "So when a middleman approaches them offering them an advance, however meagre the sum is, they grab it," says Mathew. Many of them end up staying for more than four years to pay off their loan. While TN may be one of India's most industrialised states, all its job openings are not that promising.

Tamil Nadu accounts for the largest number of bonded labourers identified and released since the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act was passed in 1976.While the rescue of bonded labourers is a cause to celebrate, it also shows the wide prevalence of people being duped into bondage. Migration experts say while most southern states have stepped up vigilance to check bonded labour, TN has lagged.

Inadequate fund flow to the state anti-human trafficking unit, lack of coordination with other states, and few follow-ups have chequered the state's record.

"The prevention mechanism is missing," said Gladstone Xavier, head of the department of social work at Loyola college. "We look at the issue through a telescope that provides monocular vision and not through binoculars," says Xavier, who has done extensive research on migrant workers. Xavier recalls the Supreme Court bench order in 2012 directing fresh surveys to be conducted periodically . "But that has not been complied with. Raids are mostly conducted based on tipoffs," he says.

According to IJM, none of the contractors were arrested for mistreating the workers. L Mishra, former special rapporteur for bonded labour isn't surprised. Forty years after he helped shape the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, he says little has been done. "We need to track the migration movement. Unit heads need to be strengthened and the act needs to be amended," he says. Government officials, however, refuted the claim saying they register cases and take action against violators."