Bolangir to Bengaluru: Drought drives people to bonded labour

43 labourers and children were rescued from a brick kiln in Bagalur on Thursday

For more than half a century, Krushna had not seen the world outside of Bolangir district in Odisha where he grows rice on a small piece of land. Some time last year, the rain failed completely in his region, and he was forced to look for work elsewhere.

A man in the area offered him, and others suffering from similar agrarian distress, a job in Bengaluru. The lure came in the form of a loan of ₹20,000. “I came here in November thinking I would work till the end of the summer...But, some time in February, I didn’t even think I would survive till then,” he says.

Tales of woe

Krushna is among 43 labourers and children rescued from a brick kiln in Bagalur on Thursday, where they were trafficked to work as bonded labourers. The group would work nearly 16 hours a day.

The children would flip over bricks during the baking process. If every couple achieved 6,000 bricks by the end of the week, they would be given ₹300 each — or, one-sixth of the mandated daily-wage rate in the State. Children were made to flip the bricks in the baking oven. “I thought if I work, I can send some money to my wife and two children (who are in his native village). I haven’t been able to save a single rupee,” says Krushna.

If distress in Odisha has seen labourers being forced into feudal servitude each year, the brick kilns on the outskirts of the city — catering to the burgeoning demand from the real estate sector — continue to see exploitation of cheap labour. According to the group, which left for Odisha on Saturday morning, their relatives and neighbours are spread across at least 12 kilns in the region — all of them working in similar conditions.

International Justice Mission, which assisted the district administration and the local police in the rescue, said more than half of the bonded labourers rescued are from Odisha, and in particular Bolangir district. Of the 1,141 persons rescued, 623 were from Odisha; while in 2017, 155 of 273 workers were from Odisha.

Among those rescued was 20-year-old Mithali, who is six months pregnant. While her husband and brother-in-law pleaded with the owner to let her go back to their hometown, she said he would ‘give her a tablet’ and force her to continue. “It was very hard work. Even if I felt sick and would be vomiting, I would be forced to make bricks,” she said.

But, for the rescued persons, there is fear of going back home. The traffickers and their networks continue to remain strong in their home district. Some narrate stories of their relatives, who had fled brick kilns, being threatened and assaulted. They were either forced to go back to bonded labour or pay up the loan amount.

“Where do we go now? What protection will we get from the traffickers that brought us here?” said a diminutive woman in the group.

No compensation

While the 2017 Central Government Scheme, which enhances the on-the-spot compensation to ₹20,000 for those rescued, none of the rescued in this case or previous cases in Bengaluru have received the money.

“We have written to the Centre for clarity on how to give the money, under which head (of accounts) should it be taken, and whether it should be given in cash or cheque,” said M.K. Jagadeesh, Assistant Commissioner of Bengaluru Urban. “But, the compensation amount can be claimed from their home districts and we will provide certificates that say that these labourers have not been paid compensation,” he added.

(Names of the people rescued have been changed to protect their identities)