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Three bonded labour offenders convicted

A landmark judgement was passed by the Tiruvannamalai Sessions Court against bonded labour offenders on 8th October 2018. Three offenders were charged under Section 18 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and Sections 347, 370, 374 of the Indian Penal Code and were sentenced to serve 11 years and nine months rigorous imprisonment.
This judgement displays that the Court will protect the marginalised people from violence and exploitation. Additionally, it warns other/ potential offenders that bonded labour crimes will not be tolerated and that it entails severe punishment.

It was in 2012 that 31 bonded labourers were rescued from this rock quarry by the Revenue Divisional Officer of Cheyyar. After rescue, the Police inspected the case thoroughly and charges were laid in 2013. Though the accused persons were granted bail initially, after facing trial in the Tiruvannamalai Sessions Court, where NGO representatives and survivors of bonded labour testified, judgment was passed in favour of the victims.

Case background

The victims had taken advances ranging from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 25000 and had been working in the rock quarry for years. Arul, one of the labourers was a victim of generational bondage. His father had taken an advance from the owner and when he passed away, Arul inherited his debts. Eventually Arul also took a loan of Rs. 3000 from the owner.

Arul, his wife Pachaiamma and other labourers worked about 12 hours a day and seven days a week to compensate for their meagre advances. They had to go deep inside a pit and break rocks. Women and children helped in loading and unloading rocks. The men supervising their work constantly abused them verbally and physically.

Each couple received paltry wages of Rs. 17-25 a day when the State’s minimum wage which was Rs. 202.33 per day.

The labourers were forced to follow every order of the owner. They could not leave the workplace – they had to live, eat and sleep only at the worksite. The owner denied permissions to visit their relatives in their villages, even for weddings and funerals. Most times, the ‘no’ came along with insults and abuses.

“Will your grandmother become better if you meet her now? How does it matter to me if she is dying? Go back and work,” said the owner when Arul asked to go visit his sick grandmother. Later, Arul’s grandmother passed away but he was not given permission to attend her funeral.

Thriving in Freedom

Today, six years later, Arul, Pachaiamma and all others who were rescued are still free. Arul and Pachaiamma are not just surviving in freedom, they are thriving. They enthusiastically spread awareness of the crime and have also assisted the government in leading rescues. They also help fellow survivors access government benefits. Pachaiamma has also spoken at several gatherings and has personally received an award from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for excelling as a survivor in an international conference organised by Maharashtra State Commission for Women in association with IJM.

In addition to this, Pachaiamma and Arul also attended an Advocacy Summit on bonded labour in Delhi early in 2017. They shared about their life experiences in person to Mr. D. Raja, MP, Rajya Sabha and Mr. Trichy Siva, MP, Rajya Sabha. The dignitaries were deeply moved and impressed with the couple’s presentation.

Convictions deter potential offenders

The successes we see in the lives of Arul and Pachaiamma clearly shows how exploitation suppresses the growth of individuals. Even though the couple was denied proper education and care, with adequate support from social workers to reintegrate them into society, they have not only established a comfortable home for themselves, they have also helped other bonded labour victims find hope and freedom.

Pachaiamma had mixed feelings when she heard about the verdict. She said, “Even though I feel sad that he (the owner) will be separated from his family for many years, I think this decision by the government is correct. I wonder now: will others change when they hear about this judgement? At least one in a hundred will change and not practice bonded labour. That makes me happy.”

Pachaiamma felt proud that the government responded to their cries. “If only the owner had treated us well, this would not have happened. When I think of those days in bondage, I feel very heavy inside,” she added. “Now I know that the government will always support us. We need it.”