Free at last – the story of Madamma

For almost all her childhood, Madamma has lived in a small village of Ragihalli in Karnataka’s Anekal district. She remembers her parents being daily wage labourers, primarily going into the forest to cut wood. “My father would do the cutting and on the days when I accompanied them, my mother and I carried the wood home on our heads,” she explains.

However, as was the custom in their community, Madamma was married off to a distant relative by the time she was 13-14 years, effectively putting an end to her childhood. It was then that Madamma’s journey as a labourer at various livelihoods, from brick kiln to agriculture to domestic helper began. For about 5 years after her marriage, Madamma and her husband worked at a brick kiln, earning about Rs. 500 between them per week for 10 loads of bricks. “All three of my children were born at home and my mother was present at all three deliveries,” Madamma recounts.

The premature death of her husband due to alcoholism after the birth of their third child, and the passing away of her parents within a year of each other left Madamma vulnerable and defenseless. The brick kiln where she and her husband had already been working at for a few years, suddenly turned into a hostile environment, leaving her uncertain about the course of action to take. The owner of the brick kiln began to abuse Madamma verbally in the beginning and then quickly resorted to physical violence and the use of force.

“While I was unable to understand this sudden change in his behavior, what surprised me even more was the owner’s allegation that I had taken an ‘advance’ from him. I had never taken any money from him except what I had worked for,” Madamma narrates. In one instance, the owner and his men beat up Madamma’s daughter Thayamma in front of all the villagers.

Shocked and paralyzed by fear, Madamma and her family escaped from the village, the first of many such attempts to escape the clutches of the owner of the brick kiln over the years. However, every time, the owner or his men inevitably found them, dragged them back to the kiln and violently assaulted Madamma. “The last time he forced us to return to the kiln, he even beat me with a cable wire,” says Madamma, showing the scars on her hand. That was the turning point that led to her being turned into a domestic worker at the owner’s house, so that she would not be able to escape again. “Every morning my work began at 5am and often ended at 1am. I was made to wash vessels and clothes, clean the house and the toilets every day for a few years.” Madamma attributes the way she was being ill-treated to the fact that she belongs to a lower caste and that there was no other explanation she could think of.

Over the next few years, Madamma’s experiences at the mercy of the owner and his family only grew more violent, oppressive and exploitative. She was not allowed to leave the house even to visit her children and grandchildren. In a last bid for freedom, she planned an escape and landed at her daughter’s home in a different village. A small window of hope opened when they heard that a staff member of the NGO Sahjeevika lived in their village. They immediately approached him with a desperate appeal for help.

Over the next few months, Madamma and her family waited for freedom, for respite from the anxiety that defined that period of their lives. However, their worst fears came true when based on a tip-off, the owner and many of his relatives reached the village where Madamma was in hiding. The sequence of events that followed resulted in the police, the Sub-Inspector and other government officials being called to the location by members of Sahjeevika, the NGO.

Madamma was brought to the Ramanagara Rural police station where a detailed enquiry was conducted. All the allegations the owner of the brick kiln made about Madamma taking an “advance” of Rs. 2 lakhs were unfounded as no evidence could be produced. When the police insisted on evidence being produced, the owner and his family pleaded ignorance of official procedures. By then, the advocates and social workers from International Justice Mission who were also looped in arrived at the police station. Madamma’s statement was the key evidence in identifying her as a victim of bonded labour. So Madamma was given a Release Certificate by the DC of Bangalore Rural district, officially declaring her free from the bonded labour system.

Through the two days it took for a complaint to be filed against the owner and his relatives, the FIR to be lodged and all the detailed enquiry procedures to be completed, Madamma demonstrated a resilience which comes through in her experiences over almost three decades of her life.

Madamma was rescued in November 2016 and today lives with her daughter’s family in the quiet and scenic village in Anekal district. Though she may be unable to recall or relate to specific timelines and chronological events, Madamma’s narrative reveals that she has spent almost 3 decades of her life working first at the brick kiln and later in the confines of this owner’s house as a domestic worker. Now Madamma is happy to go into the nearby forest to cut wood, sell it in the village and support her daughter. Her happiest moments are those she spends with her little grandson who almost never leaves her side.