The rescued workers in Ahmednagar. (Express Photo)
“They would call us dogs, and other bad words for women... There was no cooking oil, nor any vegetables, ever. There was dried fish and foodgrain and atta, so I would cook these in water on a high flame, making everything very spicy to mask the rawness."
For eight years, Kantabai Jadhav was among 14 tribal men and women, and eight children, who lived as bonded labourers working on farms, a cowshed and a rice mill just 120 km from Mumbai in Dhamane village of Pune’s Maval taluka. They were rescued in June last year in an operation involving local police, the tehsildar of Maval, other officials and activists.
An FIR was finally filed in the last week of December, at the Shirgaon-Parandwadi police station, based on a government official’s complaint, under sections of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act, 1976 and Section 374 of the Indian Penal Code for unlawful labour practice. No arrest has been made.
According to one of the tribals, Sandeep Kale, 28, they were a team of 30 adults from villages in Sangamner and Parner talukas of Ahmednagar, all belonging to the ST Thakar community, who signed up for a season of work -- four-six months -- as sugarcane harvest labourers in 2011.
Ranbhau Kathore holding the rescue certificates of labourers.
Two of the workers -- Rambhau Kathore, 65, and Sandeep’s father Savlerao Kale, 60 -- signed a bond on behalf of the group for Rs 12.5 lakh. Kathore, who studied till Class 5 in the 1960s, says he was handed cash that he distributed among the labourers in 2011, “about Rs 40,000 or Rs 50,000 a couple”.
Trouble started the very next year, when 15 of their group fled, leaving the others to work off the remaining advance.
The accused in the FIR, Hanumant Garade of Dhamane village, in whose cow shelter the workers lived and worked, claims that the workers had taken a loan or advance payment for labour -- although the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 outlaws such “debt bondage”.
“He threatened to break our legs if we asked for any calculation of how much money we had earned,” Kathore says.
According to the rescued men and women, for the next seven years, they saw no payments barring the occasional few hundred rupees when they needed money desperately. They lived alongside cows and buffaloes in an open cowshed, with no toilets. Each family was provided rations in return for work: Operating the mill, cleaning and caring for the animals and taking them out grazing, chopping wood, sowing and weeding farmland and working as domestic help.
“My boys worked for free. When we tried to include their names in the attendance books, Garade’s men would tell us they didn’t want to get into trouble for employing child labourers,” says Kantabai.
Hailing from Palshi village in Parner, Kantabai, in her late 40s, had taken her two sons along while her husband, who has a drinking problem, stayed back. The boys, now aged 17 and 15, attended only a few months of school sporadically. “They were put to work looking after smaller animals. My son was beaten once for disobeying, his hand was seriously injured,” she says.
Kathore holding the attendance record books he maintained.
Rambhau Kathore, who had signed the bond, was in charge of maintaining attendance, and says for the last three years the employer would not even glance at his records. “He threatened to break our legs if we asked for any calculation of how much money we had earned,” he says.
Savlerao Kale, who had also signed the bond, lost four fingers of his right hand in a machine used to chop hard foliage for fodder. “They took me to the clinic, but added the Rs 1 lakh expenses as payment to be worked off,” he says.
Another woman, Mandabai, lost her hearing after a beating, they say. Beatings were with a bamboo pole, or elbows and fists.
Sandeep, who only studied till Class 2, was keen to put his three boys in school. “I insisted and admitted them into the local school, but it was difficult to continue because we were out all day working. The employers also always mocked me about this, asking whether my sons are going to take the education and become Collectors.”
Kathore says for the last three years the employer would not even glance at his records.
When he left home in 2011, Sandeep had only one son, Prithviraj, 10 days old then. Shubham and Ganesh, aged 6 and 4, were born during their period of indenture. In August 2018, his wife died after contracting a fever. “On days we were ill we’d be given pills and told to return to work. By the time we realised she was seriously unwell and hospitalised her, she was dead,” Sandeep says. “I was very angry. My friend Ganesh and I considered something violent, but the rest of the group didn’t want more beatings. I decided that perhaps I too shall die there eventually.” He had to plead to take her body back home to Palshi.
Sandeep was allowed to leave on only one other occasion, to Sinnar in Nashik for a wedding in his wife’s family, a two-day trip, with their three sons left behind as collateral.
Twice, the group tried to escape. In 2012, when they organised a van with a friend’s help and went to Karnataka but were traced and brought back 15 days later. Sandeep’s brother Suresh says he was beaten brutally upon returning. “We were wrong when we ran away in 2012 — we couldn’t have paid off the Rs 12.5 lakh then,” says Sandeep.
In 2015, they organised a pick-up truck with his mother-in-law’s help and fled to Sinnar, where they spent a month. “I think the local police located us through cellphone towers,” says Sandeep. He had two phones, one provided by Garade because he had been entrusted the task of operating the rice mill, and another he maintained surreptitiously with the help of friends, kept in a dustbin at the mill. When they were in Sinnar, Garade filed a case of theft against Sandeep, Suresh and Savlerao. “It was a fake case to make the police bring us back. Garade claimed we stole 5 tolas of gold and Rs 20,000. But he himself bailed us out,” Sandeep claims. He’s not sure if that case against him was eventually quashed.
Through this period, family members and relatives knew they were being forced to work, but nobody in the community was aware that the practice is illegal. “Even when I approached a police sub-inspector who belongs to our community for help, he reported that our people were irresponsible, that they had taken a large loan and were creating trouble instead of working quietly,” says Madan Pathwe, an NCP worker.
Pathwe heard of the case from his mother Sitabai, who is related to the family of Sandeep’s wife. When the runaway labourers were being taken back from Sinnar, they had left behind their attendance logs and a copy of their original bond. The family requested Sitabai, a former Panchayat Samiti member, to help. “I was doing my MSW degree then at the Karve Institute of Social Service in Pune. In 2018, on a field trip to Delhi, I came across an NGO working on labour and sex trafficking and took their help to approach the tehsildar and police,” says Pathwe.
On June 28, as the rain came belting down, the rescue operation was conducted in the presence of senior government and police officials. The workers took only the clothes they were wearing, leaving behind utensils and other belongings that had made the cow shed their home for eight years. “I had told Sandeep to fight for us, but I never imagined we would actually get out,” says Kantabai. Sandeep’s brother Suresh was the last to join those who piled into police vans, terrified till the end that something would go wrong and he’d be beaten to death for attempting another escape.
A 2016 Central Sector Scheme for rehabilitation of bonded labourers offers financial assistance between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3 lakh, but prosecution and conviction in such cases remain low. In this case, the FIR was lodged six months after the rescue. The accused, Garade, initially claimed he was in hospital and would provide documents for the loan, but was later unavailable despite repeated attempts to contact him.
Asked why no arrest has been made in the case, Senior Police Inspector of the Shirgaon-Parandwadi police station Kailash Mhaswade says the District Collector’s office needs to first hand over evidence. “The law says the complaint and FIR should be filed within 24 hours of the rescue operation. That was not done. Now a complaint is lodged but no documents have been provided,” he says.
Pune Collector Naval Kishore Ram says cases of bonded labour may not be in abundance, but they are also not so rare. In 2018, Ram led a rescue in a case involving labourers from Odisha. When he was district collector of Beed, there was a similar case in Ambejogai. He says he recently gave certificates to 20 rescued bonded labourers from Shirur taluka. “The district administration is responsible for declaring a case as one of bonded labour. Officials including labour officers should be sensitive to the issue, it is not difficult to find out whether there is any coercion of loss of freedom for labourers from outside a region living there for several months or years. SDMs are empowered to investigate the case and see if there is exploitation, if living conditions are very bad, etc. And on getting these certificates, rescued labourers may not get back their lost dignity or years but there are other government benefits by way of rehabilitation,” Ram says.
Sandeep, Suresh, Savleram and Kantabai now have brand new orange ration cards, received just four days back. They have been told to visit the local taluka offices to get their ST certificates. Their requests for compensation under the Central Sector Scheme are being processed. Pathwe says they will also press for addition of sections of the Atrocities Act in the case, as the victims are all tribals. All of them have one to two acres of forest land for which they received occupancy and cultivation rights under the Forest Rights Act in 2010-11. “We are applying under the gharkul scheme for homes on this land, if we get it we would for the first time ever have pucca homes,” says Kantabai.