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June/July 2003
From Crisis To Liberation
By Supriya Awasthi

 


The six children from small villages near Allahabad and Bhadohi—in the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India—never dreamed they could be free again. The carpet mafia had kept them in bondage for years, confined to a dark room and forced to hand weave rugs that would ultimately be exported to Europe and America.

The daily routine for bonded children is basically all the same. These children worked 12 hours each day, starting at 6 a.m. Their one meal was eaten at about 10 a.m.—bread and a few lentils in water or rice. Then they were forced to weave carpets until daylight grew dim at 6 p.m., when the children stopped working because they could not see the designs properly. Older boys were occasionally allowed to listen to music, but most of the time there was no electricity. The workroom had no windows and only one door. In the evenings, the children were not allowed to move around freely in the village, but were confined to the room with their loom. For years they had lived in this slavery.

On April 29th of this year, the Bal Vikas Ashram, a local center that liberates and rehabilitates child slaves, organized a raid on the carpet loom where these children were forced to weave carpets. I accompanied government labor inspectors, two police officers and an activist from the Ashram in the raid.

I was very anxious about participating in a raid and rescue operation, because local and state law enforcement doesn’t always cooperate; sometimes someone tips off the loom owners and they hide the children before the raid; and sometimes middlemen try to disrupt the operation. And it is dangerous, rescuers often risk their lives during raids. But all I could think about was the children in bondage; I sympathized with the hopelessness and desperation their parents were experiencing, not knowing the whereabouts of their children all this time.

It was more than two hours’ drive to the loom. We stopped at several places for fuel, and I noticed we were followed by a few men. I was thinking maybe they would try to stop us or create hindrances, but they did not.

It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the village. Men were working in the fields. Kids were playing; when they saw us, they became silent. My mind was blank—everything became sort of mechanical. We only had a few minutes to free the children. We ran into one dark loom where about 15 to 20 young boys were weaving carpets, wearing only underwear. It was a dark, stuffy, suffocating room with very dim light. Five of the children turned out to be below 14 years old, others had grown up in bondage. Some of them were so frightened and confused that they tried to hide under bundles of wool.

I was trying to read what was going on in their minds, but it was difficult. Did they know who we were or why we were there? When children are in bondage, they are told that raid and rescue operations will lead to them being hurt. They are told that the police take kids and beat them up or put them in prison. One child started crying—I wanted to console him, restore his trust, but I could not find the words.

The loom owner managed to escape, unfortunately, while his female relatives claimed that the children were part of their family. We asked the children, and found that none of them were even from the area.

During the raid, I studied how the policemen treated the children. I saw one scolding a kid who refused to come out, and though I didn’t like it, I could not interfere. After the raid, the children were brought to a police station. The local police were very cooperative; they gave food and beds to the traumatized children.

News spread and the loom owners gathered near the station while we were inside the police station. They contacted the local legislative representative or any other influential locals, trying to pressure us to withdraw the case against them.

We wanted to complete all the formalities quickly—as the crowd gathering outside the police station grew, so did the danger to ourselves and the rescued children. After a raid in the same village a few years ago, members of the rescue team were beaten up and two activists were left disabled for life.

After we gave statements in front of a local judge, the children, too traumatized to speak, were sent to the Bal Vikas Ashram. As I looked into their faces, my happiness at their freedom did not last. I had many fears and questions. I am afraid of what might happen if these children fall prey to the carpet mafia again. Would they ever be reunited with their families? What happens if their rehabilitation and education is not continued once they leave the Ashram? And how many more children must be suffering? Would the raids ever stop loom owners? Will loom owners ever be convicted for their crimes? I know these questions have no easy answers.

I first became interested in anti-slavery work when I was young. I was curious to know why there is so much difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ especially for children. I began working as a volunteer, and gradually anti-slavery work became my way of life more than my profession. I had opportunities and exposure to work in the field with a grassroots organization. But I don’t consider myself a professional—a professional uses logic and reasoning to solve a problem. I feel that logic has little relevance to issues like ‘slavery’ and ‘bonded labor.’

There are many women who are working for human rights and against slavery in India, but it is a challenging job. Every time we go into the field we have to have a male colleague with us. Many times I have taken risks while doing research, but I try to be careful. Presence of mind plays an important role in handling such dangerous situations. I do not claim that I have changed peoples’ perceptions, but I compel people to listen.

I am never content with my efforts and whatever I do to end slavery, because I know there are still millions of children, women, and men mentally and physically in bondage. Social injustice can be resolved only by changing one’s consciousness, and to change one’s consciousness one has to be heroic, courageous, and struggle through all life situations.

Supriya Awasthi is South Asia Regional Coordinator for Free the Slaves.


In Her Own Words
Kaushaliya Devi’s Story

A freed bonded laborer in India, Kaushaliya Devi worked her way to freedom with other women in her village after joining a micro-credit union organized by Sankalp, an organization that helps former slaves. One of the great challenges in anti-slavery work is finding ways to help freed slaves build a safe and secure life for themselves and their families.

The Self-Help Groups are micro-credit unions in which members join together and save money to purchase their own land, and activists and attorneys from Sankalp aid in maneuvering the legalities of the process. Kaushaliya Devi’s story demonstrates the importance of economic rehabilitation after slavery.

I heard in the village that some people were making groups, and at the time my family was in debt bondage working for the contractor. I organized the Self-Help Group with the help of Sankalp just one year ago, and we are now 13 women. Initially we had some internal problems, but we realized that if the group does not work smoothly then we might fall prey to debt bondage again and be forced to work under the contractor’s terms and conditions. Now we are working according to our wishes and the contractors do not harass us because they are afraid that we might lodge a complaint against them under the Bonded Labor Act.

I have been living here for 25 years now. I am a migrant, I came from Gara Katara [in Bihar]. My husband and I have two daughters and one son. I break stones with my husband in the quarry. He takes out the big stones to break in the sun, and we both break them into gravel. We load the stones onto a truck every 10 to 15 days. Only after the truck has been loaded and we receive payment for the stones can we get food to eat. If we do not load the truck, or it doesn’t come when we are prepared to load, we would die of hunger. Even though we are free now from debt bondage, we do not have any other option for work except breaking stones. All the farmland that is here is in the hands of ‘big’ people and we just have stones. Big people have taken all the fertile lands—what can I do? I am leading my life like this and I am frustrated. I have spent my life breaking stones and my kids will also spend their lives breaking stones, we don’t have anything else to do…

My husband and I earn 1,100 rupees ($23) for one truck of stones, but we have to pay fees to load the truck and also pay money for royalties. At most, we load two trucks per month.

I want my kids to study and become educated. They should not live the kind of life we have lived, but I am helpless. I don’t want my children to sacrifice their lives doing this work. I can barely afford to allow my daughters, seven and 12 years old, to continue studying.

Right now we are free, but we face many problems. We don’t have a place to rest, or a place to take a bath or go to the bathroom. We do not have land, just a small hut. I am not allowed to farm in anyone’s field. I want more than anything for my children to get a small piece of land and be educated and rehabilitated. I don’t want to take someone else’s land, I want the government to provide us with land. I am ready to go anywhere.

Devi’s situation is tough, but it is not hopeless. Free the Slaves is working with Sankalp to gain access to government land in her area. When sufficient funds are raised, this land will not only be made available to freed slaves, but will be an area of environmental restoration to replant the original forests, create watersheds, and make possible a decent life for families like Devi’s.