(Arindam Majumdar, Asian College of Journalism)
“I have not heard from him since,” says Ramani. “ I don’t even know if he is alive , my baby does not know his father,” she adds. Ramani’s husband was taken as a labourer to the sugarcane fields as he could not repay a loan.
Bonded labour was outlawed by the government in 1976 by The Bonded Labour System(Abolition) Act. But till today India is still grappling with the issue of bonded labour. Bonded labour occurs when an economically weak person accepts a loan from a creditor with the understanding that they will pay off by working for them. Often they find themselves in situations where they are paid far below minimum wages, making it impossible for them to repay the debt. The workers are forced to work in inhuman conditions without basic amenities like food and medicines and have no freedom to seek employment elsewhere. Bonded labour primarily thrives on ignorance and lack of awareness. Most of the times the victims themselves don’t know that they are being exploited.
The International Justice Mission, a global human rights organisation that has been working to free bonded labourers ,recently tied up with the Dolkattai Irular Cultural Troupe , a troupe composed of entirely indigenous community members to highlight the issue of bonded labour and other social issues through cultural activities.On Tuesday, October 15th IJM concluded its state-wide street theatre performance to raise awareness on bonded labour. At the closing ceremony in Loyola College, Andy Griffith, Director of IJM Chennai said that though Tamil Nadu has been the most active state to fight this issue, the scale of problem warrants a lot more attention. “Since most of the victims of bonded labour system belong to the impoverished class , normal print and electronic medium doesn’t work for them; so we planned to start the Live Free campaign using street theatre as a means to create awareness among them,” said Beidemariam Bekele from IJM.
Starting from August 15, over a period of two months, the campaign covered 32 districts of Tamil Nadu in three phases. “ The medium of street theatre has proved to be an excellent platform for bringing together government officials, NGOs and community members to discuss the issue and how to eradicate it,” said Mr. Bekele. The troupe built an excellent rapport with the community members. Rani, the troup leader said, “ Being from the Irular community, we were always aware of this evil, but did not know how to help the victims, now I have been approached by a lot of people who have come to me with their stories. “ Several members came forward sharing stories from their own lives or from others known to them. “We saw women crying, men contemplating during our play and knew that change was happening”, she added.
On 15th October,2012 The Supreme Court of India passed orders to state governments to conduct a state-level survey on the issue and constitute Vigilance Committees for identifying, releasing and rehabilitating bonded labourers in a systematic manner. Dr. Shantini Kapoor, secretary, Special Programme Implementation said that various rehabilation schemes have been implemented by the Govt.of Tamil Nadu for the rescued bonded labourers. She also said that the role of civil society and NGOs are very significant in fighting this problem.