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15 years a slave

Entire families are kept captive for years to pay off a small debt they incur — and this story continues in 21st century Madhya Pradesh

Mukesh is 32 years old. He walks around with an obvious burden, and his face, even with a smile, shows a life led with hardship. When you speak with him, you soon find out why exactly that is.

Mukesh, along with his brothers, were bonded labourers for a total of 15 years. The bondage began when they decided to buy a plot of land — 250 ft long and 50 ft wide. This plot of land was for R27,000 but cost him, his brother Dinesh and Sri Ram, their entire youth.
The man they borrowed the money from not only made them work for 15 years for the R27,000, but also transferred the land ownership to his own name.

Working from 6 am to 9 pm, Mukesh explains his usual daily chores: clearing out cowdung from the enclosures, milking the cows, then taking the buffalo to the field, ploughing the field, cutting the grass, spraying pesticide, and various other tasks. “My wife and kids would all be asleep by the time I reached home. I would eat by myself”, he adds with clear sorrow reflecting in his eyes for this simple ritual that most families in cities take for granted.

Mukesh and his three sisters (above)

For all those years they worked, they were not paid. Any grain, sugar, oil, pulses and vegetable they could buy was because of their wives and sisters working in the same land. Their three sisters Prem, Basanta and Chunnibai, speaking over each other, say that they would be given around R200 a month to buy provisions for the family.

Life went on in the same despondent way. No help came. Twelve years later, Mukesh and his brother Dinesh decided they had had enough. However, they still didn’t think they had worked long enough to pay off their debt, so they left behind their brother Sri Ram who worked a further three years. Last year in December 2017, Mukesh says it was the 27th, his brother told the landlord that he had repaid the debt and would quit.

“They were angry. Who would do all their work now?” Mukesh says. The boss and his brother then reached the brothers’ shared home, made under the Indira Gandhi Awas Yojna and demolished it.

When the brothers reached the police station to complain, according to them, the landlord (they referred to him as patidar) had already persuaded the police to not register a case against them, having good clout in the village.

They did manage to lodge an FIR, but no case has been registered on the bondage itself. They often receive threats to withdraw the case. “They trouble us constantly, threatening us that they won’t leave us. Just a few days ago, they again came to threaten me and said we’ll break your hands and legs”, Mukesh tells Patriot.

Barkha with her five childrenWhile they have tried to approach the police again, Mukesh says the Sarpanch helps out the Patidars to speak to the police.
When Patriot contacted the SHO of Hatpipliya police station in Dewas, he told us that he had joined only two days ago, and didn’t know much about the case. The ASI whom he directed us to did not answer our calls.

For Mukesh, life goes on. He works as a daily wage labourer earning R150-200 every day. He has two young girls and one boy. One of the girls is old enough to go to school and he sends her, he adds proudly.

As the skies opened in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, we were filled with joy for the respite that the rain would bring from the June sun. But as the rain refused to stop, we glanced at the fields that were now flooded, the crops ruined. Mukesh looked at us and said, “I don’t have a proper roof, everything in my home must have now been destroyed”. The irony of how different our lives were and what mattered, sunk in and there was only silence.

Starved, confined, threatened

Despite the abolition of the zamindari system, lakhs of labourers are still in bondage under a new avatar of this system. Mostly the families belong to the Scheduled Castes, who continue to be exploited as if India is still stuck in the old feudal days. Like the sugarcane workers we met who were rescued after four months in the field on February 14, from Solapur. They were made to live in a cowshed where, if it rained, they would be drenched along with everything they owned.

Barkha with her five children

Twenty of them, including Barkha and her husband Dev Singh, went with a promise of being paid R500 per day. But other than the R13,000 they received as an advance, none got a penny more. Even a lone R500 note the couple had, was taken away by the seths.
On Day 1, they got a hint of what was to come. They were given 1 kg rice, 5 kg wheat, half a litre of oil, 1 kg of dal, R10 worth of haldi and R10 of chilli. “They told us that it has to last for 15 days else you’ll be beaten and thrown into the river”, Singh informs us. Another man, Dhania, tells us it was supposed to last a month.

They were prisoners for the entire four months they worked there, not allowed to leave the premises even for a few minutes. Barkha and Dev Singh’s five kids were made to work, all day — their youngest being two years old. When the child would start crying, Singh says, they would be threatened to shut him up or he would be killed and thrown into the river, “as the river flowed right by the land”. The threat was frequently repeated.

Clearly violence was not an empty threat, as the people working there were many a times subjected to not just verbal but constant physical abuse. Help came two months after Dhania ran away. He couldn’t take his family along, they were caught. Case workers who helped in the rescue say he was so frightened of the seths, he refused to even speak to them or go back to testify. Dhania said he wouldn’t go to the farm even if they threatened to kill him.

Dhania with his family

Karan Rathore, who works with Jan Sahas, would get frequent calls from those bonded, pleading to be rescued soon. They were afraid of being sold off to some other sugarcane farmer. Karan says, “The whole area is a sugarcane belt”, so the threat is real.

He added that Madhya Pradesh government denies there are any cases of bonded labour. “This isn’t true. This isn’t true for the entire country. Civil society alone cannot end this, everyone will have to work together”.

State Labour Minister Bala-krishna Patidar backed this theory — of non-existence of bonded labour — when questioned by Patriot. He said, “Whatever happens is with consent of the farmer and the labourer and only when there’s a disagreement they put such accusations against the farmer”. When questioned about the case of sugarcane farmers, he kept denying any such thing happened and added disdainfully that labourers go into the job knowing fully well how much they’ll be paid. “Jobs are few, and labourers want anything they can get their hands on”.

Reports are part of NFI’s National Media Awards Programme