Absence of local jobs, lure of higher wage turns into nightmare; no case has been registered so far


When 16-year-old Ajeet Kumar, a school dropout, left home for the first time to work — that too 1,100 km away in Maharashtra — he was certain he would return with enough to at least pay his younger brother’s school fee. He stuffed two pairs of shirts and pants, a shawl and a blanket in a backpack, his only concern being to somehow keep the cold away while harvesting sugarcane for two months.

But within days of work, the 45 agricultural labourers from Gond and Baiga tribes, including him, escaped into the forest to flee confinement by the contractor, whose men caught them later on a highway. What got them safely back home to the Surehali village of Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh from Kolhapur district in Maharashtra was Mr. Kumar’s mobile phone, and grit.

“They told us they bought us for ₹4.5 lakh, and so we were indebted, had to work without protest on any condition, and couldn’t leave,” said Mr. Kumar, whose parents, brother and an elder sister desperately waited for his return home, as a small plot, on which a decrepit two-room hut now stands, is all they own.

Paltry wage

Originally promised ₹400 a day per person, a wage startlingly high and unheard of, the labourers felt betrayed upon reaching fields where only ₹250 was offered for a tonne of harvest. Up in arms, the toli (batch) of 14 women carrying three toddlers, with the rest of the group teenagers above 12 and men, refused to work, as 20 persons could harvest only 10-12 tonnes a day, which meant a paltry ₹125 for each of them.

On being caught, the men bore thrashing with sticks and the women threats of sexual assault, and their phones and ATM cards were snatched. Mr. Kumar, along with four others, managed to sneak back into the forest, and called back home to explain the ordeal using the phone he had kept hidden. His father then approached Ghughri police in Mandla district, which contacted the Ajara Police in Kolhapur district, which reportedly facilitated a settlement, and both the police units ensured their return.

Punishing conditions

The labourers worked from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. without a break for around 25 days. “They poked us with sticks from behind whenever we looked around while working, or took a break,” said Hira Singh, 65. “We bathed only once in 15 days, and were not given enough to eat. The children were beginning to fall ill.”

First, a local contractor, Raju Kodape, went door-to-door in Surehali, luring workers offering the high wage. “We were thrilled at the opportunity. Even in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, where we seasonally migrate, it’s ₹300-350 a day per person [as wage],” said Mr. Singh, adding that almost all 400 families of the village migrated for work.

Then, on December 10, cooped up in a truck, the batch was taken to Jabalpur, 130 km away. “They covered our faces with clothes, telling us it would help us keep warm. They made sure the back of the truck was always covered with a tarpaulin sheet,” said Tija Bai. “We travelled only at night, and halted at dawn.” From Jabalpur, they were taken to Nagpur in a bus, and then to Amaravati, Pune, and finally Kolhapur, after a two-day journey.

‘Harrowing experience’

On reaching there, Mr. Kodape handed them over to another contractor, Bhaskar, who employed them on fields, lined with makeshift huts for stay. On Saturday, vary of outsiders, Surehali residents kept sticks, and bows and arrows ready in case of an attack by the contractors, as they had approached the police. “We don’t know if we would migrate again for work after this harrowing experience. But then, there are no means of livelihood here,” said Pahal Singh, 32.

The labourers had taken an advance of ₹10,000 each from the contractor, said a police complaint filed by them in the Ghughri station upon their return on January 13. “They wanted to leave without harvesting sugarcane and returning the advance amount. They were not held hostage, rather they just wanted to run away. In their statement, there is no mention of thrashing,” claimed Ajara Police Station In-Charge Balaji Bhange. “There is no basis for a case.”

Meanwhile, T.P. Choubey, Assistant Sub Inspector at the Ghugri Police Station, said the labourers had requested the police to register a case. “Since the incident occurred in Maharashtra, a case has to be registered there,” he added. So far, the case hasn’t been registered neither in Madhya Pradesh or in Maharashtra. “We don’t have a count of how many labourers migrate every season for work,” he added.

‘I don’t spare them’

“I have been a contractor since Raja Hindustani was released,” Bhaskar, the contractor, told The Hindu over the phone from Kolhapur, referring to the 1996 film. “The labourers fled with implements and were ready to fight back. Yes, they were threatened by the owner of the field, not me, so I am not responsible. Still, let me tell you, I don’t make a mistake, but when others do, I don’t spare them.”

Moreover, claimed Mr. Bhaskar, there were another 25 labourers from the Mandla district working for him, and “they didn’t have any issues.” He claimed he had spent more than ₹20,000 for the travel of the 45 labourers, and let them go only after they paid him ₹30,000 as recovery amount.

The labourers said their families had to sell jewellery and utensils, and mortgage land, to collect the amount before transferring it to them, to secure their release.

‘Not trafficking’

“We can’t register a case of trafficking unless the affected families approach us claiming that,” said R. R. S. Parihar, Mandla Superintendent of Police, adding that he wasn’t aware of the complaint by the labourers. “Nor can there be a case of bonded labour as they went there on agreements, based on the Girmitiya system prevailing since the British, under which labourers went to work in the Pacific. Now, we are keeping a track of migrations and recording details of contractors.”

In their complaint, the labourers have claimed they were held hostage and thrashed. “In cases of trafficking, workers are loath to come forward and file complaints as most often, family members are involved in enabling a racket,” said Ajay Sahare, an expert on bonded labour with ActionAid India, a non-profit. “Moreover, the advance payment after lurement can be construed as debt forcing them to work, thereby making them bonded labourers. The government must come up with a rehabilitation policy for them, and provide them alternative livelihoods.”

Bonded labour

According to the National Human Rights Commission, a person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay. It is prohibited by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and violates Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, an official of the Mandla Labour Department, requesting anonymity, claimed the police had not even considered if they were bonded labourers, thereby not following the due legal procedure in securing their “release”, and acted in haste. It had sought a report from the police on the episode.

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