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A house of dreams

Shriya Mohan | Updated on April 01, 2021

Leap up: Priya Darshini, Kavya and Ranjita, children of rescued bonded labourers, want to be doctors or police officers   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

A model rehabilitation project for 100 families of rescued bonded labourers kicks off in Tiruvannamalai, granting them dignity of shelter and livelihood

* Ready to be inaugurated in the next few weeks, the neat rows of green and white houses... carry the smell of fresh paint and brimming hope of its 564 residents

* The colony is the Tamil Nadu government’s attempt at creating a model rehabilitation village that weaves together bonded labour rescue, rehabilitation and livelihood generation

* There are five aspects to eradicating bonded labour — identification, rescue, release, rehabilitation and finally the prosecution of the violator

* “The only thing we want for our children is to be slaves to nobody,” says a parent

***

The memories are a decade old, but Vijaya still remembers how her skin seared under the hot sun as she lifted bricks on her head and loaded them onto a truck. It burned despite the collared shirt she wore over her sari and the cloth she used to wrap over her head and face so that her eyes appeared like slits when she walked against swirls of dusty scorching winds.

At one of the large brick kilns at Perumbudavakkam, in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvallur district, Vijaya and members of her family worked at the beck and call of the employer every day for over 15 hours with barely any time to eat or sleep. They would be woken up at the stroke of midnight and were made to work until sunrise. And then again during the day.

Standing tall: Vijaya (right) and her daughter Sathya outside their house at Irular colony   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

 

Vijaya was in bonded labour — a term that she had not heard of, and unaware that it was an illegal practice. She and three other poverty-hit families of neighbouring Tiruvannamalai district had been offered a collective loan of ₹50,000 by the brick kiln employer. In exchange, they would have to work along with their families at the kiln until they paid it off. The money was like godsend.

Except that it wasn’t. The families were made to move into box-sized rooms with no toilets, fans, without the guarantee of sane working hours or steady payment schedules. All physical movement was monitored. None of them was let out of sight. If one of them tried to escape, the others were beaten up as punishment.

“It took me two months to realise that something was wrong... and that we were trapped,” Vijaya says. The loan amount, they were made to believe, could never be paid off; it was a debt that grew fat with interest each day.

Three years passed.

It was in 2014 that Vijaya and the others were rescued by the Tamil Nadu government after she chanced upon a Good Samaritan, who heard her woes and reported a complaint to the local RDO (revenue divisional officer). The owner was arrested by the local police. That was when she learned that they had all been held as captive bonded labourers. She earned a certificate of release from the revenue department, and got a compensation amount of ₹20,000 credited to her account. But, being a single parent and a mother of two children, earning a sustainable livelihood was still fraught with challenges.

Six months ago, Vijaya and her family were relocated to the Irular colony, officially known as Dr Abdul Kalam Puram, at Tiruvannamalai district’s Meesanallur village, Vandavasi taluk. The colony, with its 143 newly constructed houses built on 37 acres of land, is the Tamil Nadu government’s attempt at creating a model rehabilitation village that weaves together bonded labour rescue, rehabilitation and livelihood generation to transform the lives of those who were once victims of extreme exploitation.

Ready to be inaugurated in the next few weeks, the neat rows of green and white houses — with kitchens and built-in toilets, fitted with water connections, solar panels, biogas, lights and fans that hang from the high ceilings — carry the smell of fresh paint and brimming hope of its 564 residents.

Crushing poverty

At the Irular colony, the rescued families have three things in common — they were all bonded labourers who were rescued between 2010 and 2019; they are natives of Tiruvannamalai (rescued from different districts of Tamil Nadu such as Kanchipuram, Vellore, Cuddalore and Thanjavur); and, importantly, they belong to the Irular scheduled tribe (also known as Irula).

The Irulars are forest dwelling adivasis known to commonly reside in the hills and plains of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. In ancient times the Irulars were called upon to catch snakes, rats and harvest wild honey. They knew the forest intimately and developed a deep knowledge of medicinal herbs and roots. They also had a rich culture of folk music and dance. But the lack of literacy and access to development pushed them into crushing poverty and illiteracy making them vulnerable to exploitative practices such as bonded labour.

While the practice was legally dismantled through the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976, the social evil continues. Bonded labour is a system of modern slavery where a worker is held captive by the employer over an unpaid debt, and made to work to pay off the debt. Their debt is used as a threat to often trick them into working for little or no pay. There is untimely work hours, curtailed freedom of movement and often physical and verbal abuse involved, all of which extend to the workers’ children.

While Tamil Nadu governments — both DMK and AIADMK — have been on the forefront of rescuing and rehabilitating bonded labourers for the past several years, the Irular colony has an interesting history. In 2015, when Tamil Nadu witnessed widespread floods, Prabhu Shankar, the sub collector of Cheyyar, a town in Tiruvannamalai district, drew up a plan to rehabilitate Irular climate refugees. Some 43 families, originally from Tiruvannamalai, were identified across neighbouring districts who had lost their homes and livelihoods due to the floods. It was then that the South India centric Released Bonded Labour Association (RBLA) sought help for rescued bonded labourers — all Irulars. RBLA is, true to its name, an association of empowered survivors released from bonded labour.

“The Irular families were so financially vulnerable and steeped in debt that several were back in the same desperate circumstances that pushed them into bonded labour in the first place. We requested the government for their proper rehabilitation,” says Durai Raj Vadivel, a coordinator for RBLA for the past seven years.

There are five aspects to eradicating bonded labour — identification, rescue, release, rehabilitation and finally the prosecution of the violator. While rescue refers to their physical rescue from the workplace, release refers to getting the release certificate from the local RDO, after which a victim is entitled to government benefits such as a compensation amount. “But livelihood still remains a pressing concern,” explains K Kanniyappan, coordinator for the district tribal welfare department.

Vijaya’s neighbour Sangeetha, for instance, remembers how despite earning a release certificate, she struggled to find MGNREGS work or anyone willing to employ her. “It felt as though I didn’t exist. I was treated like a pariah,” she says explaining that people in her village feared her notorious employer she’d escaped from. They thought that if they stood by her, they could be in danger, especially when the prosecution rate of violators was so low.

Most violators of the 100 families are either out on bail or have been released after having served a brief prison stint. A 2016 central sector scheme of the Union government mandates that once the violator is convicted, each bonded labourer is to receive a compensation amount from the Tamil Nadu government. The amount is ₹80,000 for men, ₹1.8 lakh for women and children and ₹2.8 lakh for transgenders, women and children who have a history of sexual exploitation. So far not a single member in the colony has received this.

Bound together: For the 100 families of former bonded labourers, their past acts as a glue, fostering a sense of community   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

 

Building homes

The labour ministry chalked out a rehabilitation plan. An amount of ₹14 crore was sanctioned for the development of a 37-acre area, of which 12 acres were used for housing and the rest for livelihood activities that involved a charcoal making unit, a brick kiln, wood cutting, a paper bag making enterprise and dairy farming. Each family has been given a cow and there are plans to tie supply distribution with Aawin — Tamil Nadu’s milk cooperative. Over 10 acres of land have been allotted to the grazing of cows. A family gets to choose the activities they want to undertake and each earning member of a family gets between ₹8,000 and ₹10,000 a month.

Dignity in work: Residents take part in activities such as charcoal making which fetch them a sustainable income   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

 

The colony now houses 143 families. Of them, 100 are rescued bonded labourers and 43 who were displaced by the floods. The colony has an anganwadi for the children and a community hall for the residents. They are free to go out and earn a living too.

“We have seen rehabilitation projects that only cater to residential requirements. This is the first time we’re seeing a project that integrates livelihood in such a big way, that too within close proximity of their homes,” says Tiruvannamalai district collector Sandeep Nanduri.

The outlay of the project was conceptualised with a goal of building a model rehabilitation village for bonded labourers. But Nanduri and members of the district administration realise that for the project to truly be a model of success it has to be owned by the community and ensuring that they have a full stake in it.

“The plan is that eventually the community becomes self-sustainable once they learn to manage their various societies and run it like profit making enterprises. It might take a few years of hand-holding for them to gain confidence,” Nanduri says. Model villages apart, Nanduri believes that a two-pronged approach is needed to eliminate bonded labour. This includes better reach of government schemes in the hinterlands and improved literacy and awareness as well as better law and order which translates to surprise raids on labour-intensive industries and stringent penalties for violators.

A shared history

At the colony’s boisterous angandwadi, children are reciting an upbeat Tamil poem in chorus. It’s about tomatoes and how quickly their tossed out seeds have grown into plants, bearing fruit. The poem is a metaphor for their lives. The younger ones don’t have a memory of the destiny their parents climbed out of. Yet, they are growing with dreams of their own. Skipping barefoot under a hot March sun outside the anganwadi, Priya Darshini, Kavya and Ranjita — aged 4, 7 and 8 respectively — say they want to be either doctors or police officers.

“The only thing we want for our children is to be slaves to nobody,” says a parent.

When the families first moved in, they were asked to chalk out a set of community rules and common set of values that they all agreed upon to cohabitate peacefully. Of the 26 rules they came up with one of them was that the property would never be sold or rented out so that it would always belong to future generations.

Another rule was an allegiance that all children would finish school and go to college. There are three government school options within a radius of 5km from the Irular colony. For the time being they are shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but once classes resume the administration plans to provide transport for the children.

Back at the community hall, I ask the residents about their sense of home and belonging in this development petri dish. Do they miss their extended families?

Idu engloda kanavil veedu... (This is the house of our dreams),” Vasantha says, showing me her cleanly swept home, with the walls and floor so bare that her voice echoes. It was only a few years ago that the tin roof over the head flew away during a rainstorm. Her employer had refused to fix it, compelling them to sleep on a soaking wet floor. She thinks about it every night.

Gratitude: Proud of her new house, Vasantha cannot forget how she was once forced to sleep on a soaking wet floor   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

 

Although the families didn’t previously know one another and have only been living together for six months, their difficult past is the glue that holds them tight. When Sangeetha recalls that first mouthful of biryani after she and her husband were rescued from a stone quarry unit and brought to the RDO office, she speaks for everybody. “That day I ate like there was no tomorrow,” she says, amid emphatic nods, smiles and tears.

Last month Sangeetha and her family earned a bumper ₹40,000 working at the colony’s charcoal unit. “When we go to visit our relatives, they say, ‘Look at you, going back to your kingly abode. Won’t you take us with you?’” she says, laughing.

Published on April 01, 2021

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