Beacon of Liberty: Meet T Kuppammal who helps rescue, rehabilitate bonded labourers

Free from shackles of slavery, T Kuppammal  now helps rescue and rehabilitate  bonded labourers

Published: 13th November 2022 09:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th November 2022 09:57 AM   |  A+A-

T Kuppammal

T Kuppammal

Express News Service

CHENNAI: The voices are muffled, but definitely, a far cry from whispers. It seems they are coming from someone who has the authority. T Kuppammal and the other bonded labourers like her, locked inside a dingy, dark room, pressed their ears against the wall in a vain bid to gather what is going on outside. As they could not make head or tail, two of the workers managed to climb the wall and get to the spot.

It’s waiting time now. Kuppammal and others sit there silently, keeping their fingers crossed. Slavery is nothing strange for the Irula woman, a resident of Dideer Nagar in Kadambathur block of Tiruvallur district, for she started working as a bonded labourer soon after her marriage at the tender age of 13.

“I was married when I was studying in Class 8. Several families from our community used to work in rice mills and brick kilns. We didn’t know it was wrong. My husband, Tirunavukkarasu, started working in the rice mill when he was in Class 9 after his father sustained injuries in a workplace accident. At that time, he took me as well. That’s how I ended up as a bonded labourer,” says the 38-year-old Kuppammal, who now heads the Released Bonded Labour Association (RBLA) which works with the government to rescue and rehabilitate bonded labourers.

As people who are into bonded labour are mostly not aware of their rights as citizens of the country, Kuppammal says, the members of the association educate them on various government benefits and schemes so that they could lead a better life. That’s not all. She is also part of Varnam, an SHG. “Recently, Tiruvallur collector laid the foundation stone for a brick kiln, an initiative of the association,” says the woman wearing a smile on her face.

Life at the rice mill was pathetic, as the woman says they hardly got three meals a day and were allowed to sleep for just three hours. “Our work includes boiling the paddy, drying it and collecting it. This continues through day and night. Whenever we go to our native, though it’s very tough to get permission, we would be accompanied by someone close to the owner of the mill,” she says.

The employers, Kuppammal says, know no compassion. She has examples aplenty to prove her point. Her daughter’s death is just one such episode. “My first child was born just one year into my marriage. But within a year, she died after falling into a well on the mill premises. Though after negotiations, the owner allowed us to take her body to our native place for performing the last rites, he sent his accountant along to make sure we don’t run away,” says the woman as tears roll down her cheeks.

The tragic incident had an impact on Kuppammal and her husband as they were not able to work properly. Owing to the poor show, the duo was shifted to another rice mill, but the situation was the same. After two years of slavery in the new place, another daughter was born to them. “When she was still a toddler, one day, she walked through the red-hot paddy spread on the mat in the open for drying.
The accountant did not even heed to our repeated requests to take her to a doctor. He just asked us to apply clay on the boils.

The plight never ends, she adds. “When I asked permission from the owner to send my daughter to school, he refused to say it is of no use as she will also end up working in the mill,” she reveals.

Ask her, she would say getting out of slavery is next to impossible. When the couple requested the owner to let them go once, he had asked them to pay Rs 25,000 that, according to the owner, was owed to him by Tirunavukarasu’s father.

“We had been nurturing this idea of leaving the mill for a long. At that time, a man who came to the mill asked us whether we were working there against our will. We replied in the affirmative though we had a doubt that the man might tip-off to the mill owner,” she says.

A cracking sound brings Kuppammal back to reality. The door is lying open, and the light from outside is flowing in. When the two co-workers told her that the voices were that of revenue officials, the woman just looked at the colours outside through the door of freedom that is wide open in front of her eyes.

After entering the free world in 2006, the once-bonded labourer struggled to even get a ration card, and it took five years to obtain the documents. Later, an NGO helped them get government benefits with the help of which they slowly gained awareness about various schemes.


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp