Modern-day slavery exists widely. According to various estimates, there are 10-30 million people living and working in slave-like conditions around the world — including India. Sometimes, it's visible — in the faces and hands of girls and women who peep from behind windows overlooking GB Road, Delhi's largest red light area. More often than not, it's hard to detect — as in the case of bonded labourers who work on rice fields or in brick kilns across India.

India has seen some progress with its anti-trafficking measures. The US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report last June (a measure of anti-trafficking efforts by a country) took India off the Tier 2 Watch List for the first time since 2004. The report says this is the result of a marked effort by Indian authorities to combat human trafficking.

There's been a significant increase in the number of police raids on brothels and the rescue of minor girls over the last year. Surinder Kaur, a police official whose jurisdiction covers GB Road, says she has rescued 89 minor girls from brothels over the last two years. Her predecessor rescued six. Triveni Acharya, President of the Rescue Foundation NGO, has been conducting rescue operations on brothels for the last 18 years. She says she's never seen the authorities so willing to help — she calls the change, ‘historical'. As part of CNN's Freedom Project, a yearlong focus on modern-day slavery, I've done stories on the horrors of trafficking, including reports on raids and rescue of underage girls.

Trapped in a brick kiln

In April, there unfolded another story of modern-day slavery — bonded labour. It still exists in various parts of the country but is usually hard to detect because it looks like a regular business when viewed from a distance. A CNN crew travelled to a brick kiln in Ponneri, Tamil Nadu — it was hard to believe it was once buzzing with activity. The firing chamber was cold, storage chambers dark. Neatly stacked bricks glistened in the harsh sun. We were taken there by S. Kandasamy, a local government official.

Earlier, acting on a tipoff that a brick kiln under his jurisdiction used bonded labour, Kandasamy called the police and representatives from a human rights group, International Justice Mission (IJM). Together, they raided the kiln. What they found there shocked them. Expecting to find around 200 people inside, they found 514, including women and children. They had been working at the factory for around six months under a brutal, oppressive regime. All the labourers were from the north, most of them from Orissa. Later, Surabhi, one of the freed labourers, said when she saw the rescuers she felt like she saw God.

The days before that felt like time in hell, the workers said. They were beaten with rods, belts and subjected to other forms of abuse. “We worked all the time, we would only stop to eat,” says 20-year-old Dambru Jani, . “If we tried to rest, they'd abuse us and force us to work again.”

Sent here by a middleman, they were in for a shock on arrival. They said that a wealthy man from a neighbouring village had given each of them a cash advance of Rs 10,000. They were then taken hundreds of miles away from home to work in the brick kiln in Tamil Nadu.

Bonded to cruelty

According to Saju Mathew, National Director of IJM, what took place at Ponneri was typical of a bonded labour system. “In bonded labour, the owner decides when they eat, when they sleep, whether they are free to leave or not,” says Mathew. The labourers said they were trailed round the clock and shadowed even when they went to relieve themselves in fields. Their tiny, windowless mud huts had no sanitation. When asked if they had tried to escape, Tankar Jani said no one dared to because they'd seen what happened to those who were caught fleeing. “They were beaten badly with belts and sticks,” he says.

The money, too, was far less than what had been promised. Instead of the agreed Rs 150 for every 1,000 bricks they made, they only got Rs 40 — and at times, not even that. “More than 14 hours a day they are working,” Kandasamy said. “Sometimes, they are being beaten, and some harassment was noted by the labourers. No medical facilities.”

The brick kiln owner was arrested and later released. Authorities have three months to file charges.

Following the raid, the Government organised trucks to send the labourers to a temporary shelter. Four days later, Kandasamy's team gave the rescued workers Rs 1,000 each — the first instalment of the Rs 20,000 they are entitled to in rehabilitation fees — and a ticket home to Orissa. The CNN team met the rescued labourers back at their home in Orissa. They said they were thrilled to be home, but the excitement was muted. The money was running out and many felt they were back to square one — looking for employment, worrying how to feed their families the next day.

Guaranteed work… and freedom

“Bonded labour is against humanity, so it has to be curbed,” said Kandasamy. The key to curbing it, says Mathew, is to educate labourers. They must recognise the signs of a bonded labour system so they don't fall into a similar trap again. The IJM is running a series of rehabilitation programmes in Orissa. Besides educating the people about bonded labour, it is looking for ways to make jobs more accessible to them. The jobs are there, says Anil Swarup, Director General of India's Labour Department. The NREGA, for example, guarantees hundred days of wage employment in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Problem is, the NREGA hasn't reached many of the people who could benefit from it. Its implementation has been far from successful.

Many of the rescued labourers said they had not even heard of NREGA. Each day, the men get on their cycles and head to the nearest market — an unofficial meeting place for those looking to hire a daily wage labourer, and those looking for work. Sometimes, hours of waiting pays off and they get hired for a wage. On other days, the waiting amounts to nothing. They cycle back home. They have no money in their pockets — but they're free.

The reality is, freedom won't feed their families. It's crucial that schemes like the NREGA reach people who need it the most. A hundred days of income a year could make the difference between preserving their freedom and pushing them into a brutal trap of bonded labour.

The author is CNN's Mumbai-based International Correspondent

(This article was published on November 24, 2011)
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