Caste discrimination and exploitation of Dalit children are not confined to villages alone as some members of the dominant communities force them into bonded labour in savory and confectionary units run by them in many parts of north India.
Recently, Vadugapatti village near Usilampatti was in the news when a Class VI Dalit boy was forced to carry footwear on his head through a caste Hindu street. But the same village has another story of a 17-year-old Dalit, who has become mentally ill due to physical and psychological torture he had faced at a savory factory in Gujarat, owned by a local businessman settled there.
Confined within a room for the last two years, the victim, T Vairamani, was rescued by his father, Thevamani, from a village in Gujarat. Owner Rohan, a caste Hindu of Usilampatti, had paid `2,000 as advance to Thevamani, a tender coconut vendor, while taking the boy for work at his savory unit.
“Vairmani was forced to work for nearly 20 hours a day. If he asks for rest, Rohan would abuse him in filthy language denoting his caste,” says S Muthu, a social worker attached to Madurai-based NGO Evidence. These days, Muthu takes the boy for regular medical check up at the Government Rajaji Hospital.
Rohan gave spoilt or poor quality food and that too only twice a day, and forced Vairmani to sleep in the kitchen. He also prevented his father from communicating with his son for two years. A restless Thevamani went in search of his son and spent more than a fortnight in Gujarat. Only after he filed a complaint with the Keraloor police, Ravikumar, a relative of Rohan, informed that the boy was safe at his house. “But when Thevamani spotted his son, he had injuries all over the body and was lying unconscious. With the help of then Madurai district collector Sagayam, we treated him for two months in the hospital,” says Muthu.
While Thevamani got back his son, albeit with mental illness, Parvathy of Uthampalyam in Theni district lost her son Surlimuthu within a few months after he was rescued from a confectionary unit in Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally Surlimuthu, a Dalit, had lost his dad Periyasuruli, as an eight-year-old.
On seeing Parvathy struggling to run the family, Sonaikalai, a caste Hindu of nearby Meikilarpatti convinced her to send her son to the factory promising good returns.
“The boy was working for 17 years at the savory unit of one Mahendran, who treated him like a slave,” says Ilayaraja, a social worker with Evidence.
While forcing him to work for 20 hours a day, Mahendran at times scalded him by pouring hot oil on his skin and branded him with a hot iron. When Surlimuthu returned home in 2008, his body was full of injuries. “Though we provided medical treatment, he died within a few months,” says A Kathir, executive director of Evidence.
A study of 111 bonded labourers in Madurai, Theni, Dindigul and Virudhunagar districts, revealed that most of the children were Dalits. In northern Tamil Nadu, particularly in Villupuram, Cuddalore, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Tiruvannamalai districts, tribal children were forced to work in brick kilns as bonded labourers, the study showed.
“It is distressing that the relief and rehabilitation promised in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 doesn’t reach the rescued children,” says former south-zone convener, Campaign Against Child Labour, B S Vanarajan.
“If the rescued boy/girl is a Dalit, he/she is eligible for addition relief amount of `60,000 under the SC/ST prevention of atrocities Act, 1989 (section 3 (1) (6), but the government is not taking steps to provide relief invoking this Act,” he says.