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Invisible chains of bondage behind the brick wall

Even years after her rescue from a brick kiln at Red Hills in Tiruvallur district, K. Ranjani’s voice trembles when she recalls the violence she and her husband faced in the chamber. Her family’s determination to pay back the advance it had taken from the owner for her father’s treatment looked meaningless, as her family was toiling in the chamber deprived of even a few hours of sleep and rest.

“I am ashamed to tell you the kind of words they used to call me since I left the kiln to go to a hospital in my native as I was unwell. My husband was bleeding when I went back. They had asked him where I was. They didn’t even understand if I had wanted to run away, we as a family would have run away,” says Ranjani (name changed), who still struggles with the memory of that humiliation.

Hers is among the several families who were rescued from bondage from a chamber in Tiruvallur district few months ago. A native of Kavanaiathur in Tiruvannamalai district Ranjani says no one else must suffer her fate. It was in 2012 that she was rescued, nearly four years after she and her family came to the kiln and the nightmare began. Post rescue, she was among some families that benefitted from a rehabilitation programme run by an NGO.
But, just like Ranjani, who came to the kiln in the Tamil month of Karthigai (November-December) in 2008, on receiving the advance, several hundred labourers from neighbouring districts and Odisha would be arriving in Tiruvallur, oblivious to the inhuman living and working conditions they would be put through to in some of these chambers.

Located adjacent to Chennai, Tiruvallur district is well-connected with the State capital, where the real estate industry is growing substantially. The texture of clay conducive to making bricks, found across Tiruvallur district is a major factor which is considered favourable for the industry.

There are two types of kilns: Choolais, the small-time kilns, where the bricks are baked in the open and there are ‘chambers’, which are closed facilities with tall chimneys to bake the bricks. “The bricks from choolais are often for the local market and for huts and small houses, whereas the bricks baked in chambers are better in quality and shape and are needed in major construction companies,” explains a source. Approximately, there are 350-400 chambers spread across five blocks of the district with each of the blocks having anywhere between 80-90 chambers. Bondage is noticed mostly in chambers, where the work chart is target-oriented and make several lakh bricks every season.

A researcher from an NGO, who is working with bonded labourers in Tiruvallur, says while labourers were also kept in bondage in rice mills and charcoal units in the area, it was these brick kilns which employed them in large numbers.

Modus operandi
In Ranjani’s case, the owner of the chamber arrived in a car in her village near Vandavasi with “suitcases full of money” to lure poverty-stricken families into accepting his advance.

In the case of migrant labourers from Odisha from where several hundred labourers arrive every season, brick kiln owners visit Kantabanjhi, a small town in western Odisha and meet middle-men (also called agents or brokers) during October and November, an informed source says.

“There are specific hotels in this town, which are occupied all through these two months by owners from Tiruvallur for arriving at a best bargain with agents. Based on the agreements they sign with individual families, who take ‘advance’ amounts usually for the big expense either for a family function like marriages, birth or a death in the family and they arrive in these brick kilns in December,” the source says.

Though the middle-men are constantly in touch with them, the owners of brick chambers in Tiruvallur blame the middle-men, when law enforcing agencies conduct a raid and find cases of bondage due to debt. “Not all owners keep labourers in bondage but some. They say the middle-men took the advance from them and cheated both the labourers and them, which is a white lie.”

When contacted, V. Sampath, office-bearer of Tiruvallur District Brick Manufacturers’ Association says: “We are giving these labourers jobs, which they cannot get in their native places. These NGOs are making false allegations and these labourers are falling for it only because they can escape the debt and get Rs. 20,000 as relief amount.”

“If they are in bondage, why do they keep coming back every year? Just because some owners are making some mistakes, you cannot blame all of us,” he says.
Chances of getting out
For some of these labourers, who end up in bondage, their chances of coming out of the facility depends mostly on their luck when and if they are able contact the local RDO or any NGO in the district for help.

“No, we regularly do conduct raids based on inputs and we release them. We issue them the release certificate after an enquiry to check it is a case of bonded labour. They are entitled to Rs. 20,000 as per norms and are given Rs. 1,000 the very day of their release,” says Tiruvallur Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) S. Jayachandran.

But there have been instances in the past when intelligence offered to officials by NGOs have been leaked to the chamber owner. An activist claims few years ago, her input about 200 labourers in bondage was leaked and within half an hour, they couldn’t be located when a raid was conducted.

Caught in between
The primary concern which arises when looked into the role of government agencies’ action is the three different departments are dealing with the issue and none of them have full control.

While the responsibility of monitoring the issue of bonded-labourer is presently with the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, officials from the Revenue Department – RDOs, are the field-level officers conducting raids on kilns. There is also a proposal to transfer the responsibility to the Labour Department.

According to P. Annamalai, Secretary of Adi Dravida and Tribal Welfare Department of Tamil Nadu government, the responsibility is to be transferred to the Labour Welfare Department “any minute now”. When asked about his Department’s role in rescuing bonded-labourers, he said RDOs have been “trained well to manage” the issue.

The proposal to shift the responsibility between departments was based on the Union government’s suggestion that the department dealing with child labour issue should handle bonded-labourers issue. “Since most of the victims of bondage in labour were from Irular community, the responsibility was initially allocated to the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department,” an officer explains.

Legal point
A major hurdle in dealing with cases registered against offenders and the delay in the trial and the eventual conviction is the non-application of Section 21 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 in Tamil Nadu, which was struck down by the Madras High Court in June 2014, while hearing a plea. With this order, the powers vested with the RDOs to try offenders under the Act and award punishment to them have been taken away.

An officer, who had tried offenders under this Section, before it was struck down says, “Earlier, we were able to try the offenders and punish them without any delay. But, because of the High Court decision, now only a Judicial Magistrate can try these cases. It also means the poor victims, who were already at the receiving end, have to fight cases against the kiln owners by hiring an advocate in a court of law.”

Tracking the released
Amidst reports that hundreds of labourers have been released every year, there are also questions as to what happens to them. Government sources allege, in some cases, these labourers, despite having been rescued, make their way back to these kilns with the hope of being rescued again.

“I myself caught a case, where a labourer was rescued three months earlier and he was found again. When confronted, he confessed an NGO had convinced him to come back so that the relief assistance could be shared between them. They didn’t know the district administration used to maintain records,” claimed an officer.

But when drawn its attention to this aspect, members of an NGO pointed to the absence of a comprehensive list of labourers who were rescued. “If the government had a directory of labourers, there is no question of NGOs faking labourers. Officials claim to have lists but when asked, they are not able to produce these lists.”

Tiruvallur RDO Jayachandran says he has been calling for meetings with the owners of brick chambers and members of the bonded labour awareness committees regularly to prevent such cases in the future.

But what is needed in the long term is the determination to address issues like poverty in the source districts so that these labourers won’t fall for the promises of the agents and middle-men, says Siddamma, founder of Sarpam Irular Thozhilalar Sangam.

She also says whenever labourers come for work into these chambers, they should to be registered and if they do not have any documents like Aadhar cards, bank accounts, they should be helped to open them.