Arjun and Shantilal: Finding courage to be free

“I have always been quite outspoken and a little unafraid,” says 24-year old Arjun, quite matterof-factly. He calls out to his older brother Shantilal to sit beside him on the “khaat” (a cot with wooden frames and a pattern of coir ropes) as they begin to speak about their life and experiences as bonded labourers at a brick kiln in Madhya Pradesh.

Growing up in a family which made its living through daily wages, work had always been a priority for Arjun’s family. He and his 5 brothers supported their father in various kinds of agricultural activities in and around their village Barodia. Arjun recounts a childhood memory of his brother Shantilal getting into trouble with his father for bunking work to play marbles with the other boys in the village.

Arjun’s experience with bonded labour came unexpectedly when he needed Rs. 5000/- to repay the loan he had taken at the time of his wedding to Babita. He naturally sought help from his brother Shantilal who was working at a brick kiln in another town, some hours away. “I thought that Arjun would be better off in a place close to me,” said Shantilal, who spoke to the brick kiln owner and arranged for his brother to work at the brick kiln for 4 months. The loan Arjun needed was given to him at the village by an associate of the brick kiln owner, so Arjun repaid his debt and travelled toward the brick kiln. “Though this was going to be the first time at a brick kiln, I had faith in my ability to work, no matter what was required of me and so I set off by bus,” said Arjun.

He thought that working at the kiln would be easy since his previous experience as an agricultural labourer in Shajapur and Barodia was manageable. There he was paid Rs. 250 daily, some of which he was able to save at the end of the month. Arjun says he did not know what to expect but what he saw when they reached Ninora was a surprise. It was a very big brick kiln and there were quite a few managers supervising the labourers who were working. There were small huts towards one end of the kiln where the workers lived. “I found out that unless I made 10,000 bricks a day, the wages for that day would just get completely cut,” Arjun exclaims. They were not allowed to leave the kiln for any reason – all groceries had to be bought only from the owner of the kiln. In short, it looked like there was a way into the kiln – and once you got there, there was no way out. “It was like walking into a spider’s web,” said Arjun succinctly.

Things began to get progressively more difficult and came to a head when Pappu, one of the labourers, ran away because he couldn’t work under those circumstances anymore. The brick kiln owner sent his people to forcefully get Pappu’s daughter to work at the kiln. Later, when Pappu was apprehended, he was brought to the kiln, beaten and tortured for a whole hour in front of all the labourers. Arjun was among those who witnessed this. This not only alarmed all the labourers but forced them to grasp the reality of bondage they were trapped in.

Arjun says “With all that happened I immediately decided to just pay off my dues, leave this kiln and go back home to my village. However, the owner said he would let me go only after a year.” Six months later, when Arjun wanted to settle his accounts, he was told that he would have to pay Rs. 5000 against the advance taken and a huge additional sum as interest! Arjun was shocked.

He soon discovered he was not the only one defrauded. The Seth (as the woner is commonly referred to in that area) had similarly defrauded every labourer. Arjun rallied all his co-workers to file a request with the police. Unfortunately for Arjun, one of the other labourers disclosed this to the Seth. The result of this instilled even more panic and fear in the hearts of the labourers. “The Seth threatened to shoot me if something like this occurred again, and I knew he wasn’t joking,” says Arjun.

“In June 2016, one day at around 11am, a few government officials had come to conduct an inquiry about our experience at the brick kiln. Not surprisingly, not a single labourer spoke up. Finally I did. I plainly said that no one would speak up because of fear. I boldly described how we were all beaten and abused frequently at the brick kiln. By then others found the courage to speak up one by one,” says Arjun, recalling the exact time when he found some glimmer of hope in the midst of despair.

While they were being rescued, Shantilal recalls, “Only 17 people took that leap of faith to come forward and get into the truck. I wish the others had also come, they could have been free.” Those who chose to be rescued were then taken to the Tehsildar’s office for their statements to be recorded. They insisted on having some official proof from the government assuring them that they would not be harassed or abused by the Seth again. They were given a protection letter issued by the Police of Ujjain.

“We know for a fact that if Jan Sahas, a local organization working on the issue of bonded labour, and the government officials did not come to get us out of there, we would have lived the rest of our lives inside that brick kiln,” affirmed Arjun. Post their rescue, Arjun and Shantilal have gone back to agricultural work. “The land loves us, as we love the land,” Arjun says simply. They grow soyabeans, peanuts and corn. Although he works 10 hours a day, he still believes it is painless and work that brings fruit immediately. Arjun points out, “My new ‘seth’ and the Seth at the brick kiln are as different as earth and sky.”

Arjun has applied for a Building and Other Construction Works (BOCW) card with the help of the Jan Sahas Rehabilitation team, to help him gain financial aid under various benefits. His family’s name is enrolled in the list for housing from the government under the PM housing benefit. In addition to this, Babita was able to opt for the Institutional delivery under the Janani Suraksha Yojna, which encourages rural women to choose institutional delivery and also provides cash assistance for the delivery.

“We will never go back to those circumstances. My wife Durga and my three children Dharam, Jyoti and Diya are safe now,” says Shantilal. “I dream of standing on my feet and starting something of my own so that my son Rohit will never have to get into the situations I did. No loans, no nightmares, no fear,” claims Arjun, believing in a better and brighter future.