CHENNAI: Born into bondage, these Irular sisters have used their freedom to ensure others in difficult situations are aware that help is at hand. Durga, 25, and Devi, 23, remember a childhood of hard labour and physical violence at the hands of their family’s ‘owners’.
Now, Durga works to help smoothen the return to freedom for others rescued from bondage. Devi has completed a nursing course and aims to work in a government hospital to serve the poor. The youngest of five children, the sisters are the third generation of an Irular family held in bondage over a Rs 20,000 advance their grandfather borrowed from a rice mill owner in Tiruvallur district in 1990.
The advance was to taken to get his son Maari married, but to repay the amount Maari and his wife Malliga too joined the mill. When the couple had children, the young ones were engaged to clean out tanks used to soak paddy. The owners believed their smaller size would allow them to do an efficient job, the sisters recalled.
Till they were rescued by government workers in 2005, the sisters said they were made to start work at 3am. “My earliest memories are of working at the mill and of being beaten by the owners of the mill. My family tells me that I once fell into the tank and was rescued,” said Devi. Their family toiled, alongside relatives and others trapped in similar bondage, day and night boiling rice, drying rice, cleaning tanks and packing rice.
‘We wouldn’t get enough sleep or supplies for a meal’
“We would hardly get any sleep or enough materials to make a decent meal. When my grandfather died, we had to cremate him behind the rice mill as we were not allowed to leave. Even when they gave us permission to go out, the accountant would accompany us,” recalled Durga.
They weren’t allowed to celebrate festivals either. The rescued children don’t know their birthdays; approximate dates were fixed based on their ages. It was finally in tragedy that the workers found a way to freedom.
“My brother Raghupathy and a cousin got inside a tank to clean it. Both got trapped inside and only my brother could be brought out brother alive. We had to fight with the owners to be allowed to go to our hometown to perform the last rites for my cousin. My parents left Devi and me at our village and went to the rice mill,” Durga said. Unable to bear the torture any longer, their parents used the phone number of a person who had offered and called it from a public phone booth.
Government officials soon came to the rice mill and rescued the families. However, not all could make a fresh start. “Our elder brothers Chinna Rasu and Regupathy and elder sister Nagammal could not pursue education due to their age,” said Devi.
Their father eventually left the family. Durga studied till class 12 and then started working at a company to help her sister complete the nursing course. Now, she works with self-help groups with bonded labourers to educate them on government schemes. She is also actively involved in the Illam Thedi Kalvi scheme, where she teaches kids from classes 1 to 5.
“My elder sister is part of the self-help group that does design work for sarees and blouses. One of my brothers is a driver and another is a construction worker. We ensure that rescued bonded labourers know about the schemes available for them and don’t have to pay bribes to access services,” said Durga.