THIRUVALLUR/CHENNAI:On Thursday, Lokimi Maji had no bricks to carry.
Holding her release certificate with her name and photograph, and a cash envelope, she was scheduled to board a train to take her home to the Kalahandi district of Odisha. Along with 332 other bonded labourers who were rescued on Thursday from a brick kiln in Pudukuppam village in Tiruvallur, she sat waiting for a life away from the three months of hard labour she had suffered.
Behind the walls of a non-descript wedding hall in Thamaraipakkam, Tiruvallur, the group squatted on the floor to have their lunch.
“We never got water there and milk for our children was unthinkable,” shrugged Ghonchu Bisi, who came to what they referred to as the ‘chamber’, drawn by the Rs 16,000 that was initially promised to them. The group was collected by a trafficker who they called ‘Babloo’ and brought here in December. With dwindling job opportunities in their hometown, the group flocked here. “I saw everyone coming, so I joined the crowd,” Bisi said.
Following the information that the kiln was illegal and acting on a tip-off from one of the workers about the abysmal working conditions, district sub collector Rahul Nath busted the racket and the labourers were rescued and brought to temporary accommodation on Thursday. The 258 adults were given release certificates and an FIR was lodged against the owner of the kiln, P G Munnuswamy.The group, with 75 children, were working at the brick kiln for wages as low as Rs 70 to Rs 100 a week, based on the number of bricks they carried. “I would carry 2,000 bricks in a day,” said Maji.
In the temporary huts with asbestos-sheet roofing they lived in, sanitary and medical facilities were non-existent. While some children went to a Sarva Siksha Abhiyan facility two km away, many above the age of ten worked at the kiln. “They could not walk four km every day, so many stopped going to school. We don’t know what they learnt there as we have never been to school ourselves,” said 30-year-old Benu Sabra, holding his one-year-old daughter while two of his other children ran around him.
“The lack of education and the language barrier made labourers suffer without complaining. They were terrified of their supervisors and many children were physically abused,” said Nath.
While one woman died of jaundice a couple of months back, Maji’s leg was injured when a pile of bricks that she was carrying fell on her foot. “They gave me a tablet and bandaged my leg at the local hospital. I had to get back to work the next day,” she said.
Around one-third of the workers were scheduled to board the train to Odisha on Thursday, and the rest were to follow. Of the Rs 20,000 that was their compensation money, Rs 1,000 was paid to them here and the rest will be paid by the Odisha government when they return. Their rehabilitation is scheduled to be carried out with the help of the non-profit organisation International Justice Mission (IJM).
“This has been a pattern for people from the Scheduled Tribe in Odisha. In 2012 there were over 500 labourers rescued and in 2013 there were 274. There is a strong nexus of traffickers who are capitalising on the vulnerability of these people,” said Mathew Joji from IJM.