They beat us with motorcycle chains: bonded labourers recount horrors

Escaping bonded labour is no cakewalk. Even if you manage to evade the ferocious guard dogs, there is every chance you could be apprehended by an alert warden.

Raghu M. Bellary, a B.Com graduate who ended up a bonded labourer at a ginger farm in Karnataka's Bylakuppe, had heard spine-chilling stories of failed rescue attempts, and the owner’s wrath. But fear didn't stop Bellary from running away from living hell.

Bellary reached home and sounded off the authorities about the workers trapped in the farm, paving way to their rescue.

A team, headed by Tehsildar Mahesh. J of Periyapatna taluk, rescued 14 bonded labourers from the farm located in the Mysore district recently. The victims said they were subjected to physical assault. “We used to be thrashed with motorcycle chains and sticks,” said one of the rescued bonded labourers.

The labourers, hailing from Gadag, Davanagere, Dharwad, Haveri, Mandya, Lingsur and Nelamangala, are between the ages of 28 and 60. They fell into the trap at Hubli, where they went in search of employment. Niranjan, the farm owner's brother-in-law “recruited” them, offering them free food, lodging, and alcohol every night, besides wages of Rs 350 a day. They were told they would have to work just eight hours a day.

It didn't take long for them to realise that these were all false promises. They were made to work throughout the week, from 6am to dusk, and were not even allowed to take a bath. Umesha, the owner of the farm, would have sudden bouts of anger for no apparent reason and he would beat the labourers brutally. The labourers were confined to the farm and never paid their wages. They were even forbidden from speaking to their families. “I had left behind my wife and a two-year-old child at a rented house in Gadag five months before, with only Rs 2,000. I hoped I would be able to earn well and send them money regularly. I have not been able to talk to them since, and don’t know what has happened to them,” says a 38-year-old rescued labourer.

Bellary, who escaped from the farm, shared his story of torture to Harish Pujar, his cousin. The duo played a crucial role in rescuing others, with the help of community leaders and local authorities. International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-profit organisation also took part in the rescue operation.

An FIR has been registered at Bylakuppe Police Station under IPC 370 (Trafficking of Persons), and sections 16, 17 and 18 of the Bonded Labour System(Abolition) Act 1976, among other sections of the IPC. Umesha has been remanded to judicial custody for two weeks. He was arrested from the spot during the rescue ops. Umasha's brother and brother-in-law, who are co-accused in the case, are still at large.

The district administration issued release certificates to the rescued labourers, declaring them free. The release certificate negates any previous agreement with the farm owner. As per the central scheme for rehabilitation of bonded labourer, they are also entitled to get Rs 20,000 as the initial amount.