CHENNAI: A total of 117 bonded labourers, including 52 children, were rescued by the NGO International Justice Mission (IJM) from two brick kilns near Tirupati in Chitoor district two days ago and sent back home to Orissa on Saturday from Chennai Central station.
The NGO workers as well as the rescued labourers indicated that they had not been paid the initial compensation of Rs 1,000, as is the general norm when bonded labourers are rescued. “The Chitoor Collector instructed the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) to give the compensation only after he checked the reports,” said Alice Suganya, a member of the IJM team. 65 of them were given Release Certificates (RC), but did not receive the compensation, while rescue workers suspected that the children might have worked in the kiln.
All the labourers were brought to Chennai Central early on Saturday morning and they boarded the train around 2:30 pm. The labourers, all of whom hailed from the impoverished Bolangir district, were provided with a special coach by Southern Railway and attached to the Chennai-Asansol Express which would drop them off at Titlagarh in Orissa. NGO and Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel also provided them with food for two days of the train journey.
Speaking to Express at Chennai Central, one of the labourers, 24-year-old Santosh Nag, recounted the horrific working conditions, where he and his wife had to slog more than 14 hours a day to make and transport bricks for the past nine months without any salary or leave. “We were regularly beaten up if we asked for even a toilet break. Even my wife wasn’t spared,” he said in Hindi, while displaying wounds on his legs caused after bricks fell on them. Despite workers asking the kiln owner to get them registered under the welfare board, he refused, Santosh said.
The workers were given Rs 150 each for their food needs every week and many resorted to eating leaves of drumstick tree and raw mangoes as curry with rice. “I have worked in brick kilns in Visakhapatnam and Cuttack before but the owner never treated me like this,” Santosh said. Most of them did not even know about National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) or that it could provide them employment in their native villages, when this reporter enquired with them.
Rescue workers revealed that distress calls sent out by the bonded labourers to their relatives back in Orissa tipping them off about the kiln had reached them.
Several families had brought their children along to work in the brick kiln and few children could be seen wearing a school uniform. Santosh and other labourers said that some of the children were also made to work long hours in the brick kiln. A rescue worker, on condition of anonymity, said that prevalence of child labour could be the reason why the district administration was reluctant to provide the initial relief money to the labourers.
Release certificates can be used by the labourers to obtain bank accounts as well as ration cards and other id cards, rescue workers said.