Lucknow: Twenty-one families working as bonded labourers in a brick kiln of Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, barely 100 km from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, were rescued today by activists and the labour department. The families – all of them from Bihar’s Gaya, are Mushahars, one of the most backward castes, to which Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi also belongs.
For them, the nightmare began when they borrowed money from the village middleman. Unable to repay it, they were taken to the brick kiln to work.
“We took Rs. 50,000, and have been working here since Diwali to repay it,” said Sunita Devi, who had been working there with her whole family. Even her 6 children – who are only between 5- 12 years in age – had not been spared.
She and her husband made bricks, and the little ones did the fetching and carrying. The hours were brutal – almost 10 hours a day. For home, they were given a tin shed, in which the whole family had trouble fitting in.
“We work day and night, from 5 in the morning to 7-8 in the evening. At night, it is very cold in the shack, but we do not have an option,” she said.
“Three things make a worker a bonded labourer – working to pay off an advance, the curbing of mobility and less than minimum wages. Tomorrow, incidentally, happens to be international abolition of slavery day and here we have modern day slaves,” said Chandan Kumar, a volunteer of the non-profit Action Aid.
The Bonded Labour Act came into force in 1976, but the practice has not ended. According to the International Labour Organisation, more than half of the world’s 21 million bonded labourers are in India.
The owner of the brick kiln denies the allegations. “We have done no wrong. They did not receive the advance from me,” said Dheeraj Singh.
Officials of the state’s labour department said they would take action after completing their investigations. “We will file a case depending on which Acts have been violated,” said Pankaj Rana, Assistant Labour Commissioner.
Till then, the rescued families have little to look forward to. “We wish the government could help us, provide us with employment and waive our debts,” said Sunita Devi.