Early Sunday morning, 71 people were rescued from bonded labour conditions at a brick kiln in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan. The rescue was conducted by district police along with district officials and NGO Jai Bhim Vikas Shikshan Sansthan (JBVS), a civil service organisation that advocates for release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers.
Of the 71 people, 43 were children who had been press-ganged into making bricks along with their parents. Most of them come from the Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh and promised fair wages and living conditions for a contracted time. However, in India’s bonded labour market, these are rarely followed rules, and workers are often housed in closed off structures and watched. Some workers had their wages withheld until the end of brick-making season which is eight-to-10 months long.
The numbers for human trafficking cases released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) put Rajasthan at the second most popular destination for bonded labour in the country, with 1,422 cases registered in 2016. The list is topped by West Bengal with 3,579 cases. Recognising that there is no specific law to deal with trafficking, the government has recently introduced the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, which would rehabilitate survivors and initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The authorities were tipped off to the conditions in the camp when the brother of one of the men, Gaya Prasad, wrote to district officials. The letter named a contractor Jaggu Redas, who promised that his brother “would be provided a place to live and be given food to eat, his children would get free education, and he would be paid on time, and he was free to leave whenever he wanted.” Prasad wrote that his brother had not been paid and was not allowed to leave the camp, even to attend the funeral of their mother.
Tulsidas Raj, secretary of the JBVS, told VICE this was a common practice amongst contractors. They often provide an advance to migrant workers, he said, withholding the fact that they were expected to pay for travel, housing and electricity, and often forcing labourers’ children to work the kiln to stave off debt. To prevent runaways, labourers are taken to neighbouring towns in trucks to buy provisions, but never as a whole family.
When asked how this and similar camps are allowed to operate so blatantly, Raj admitted that most people don’t realise they are being trafficked. “They don’t know this treatment is illegal.” He also told us that the owner of the kiln, Shantilal, was the brother of a local politician—so no one wanted to act against him. An FIR has been lodged against Shantilal, though the contractor Redas escaped.
Abhishek Joseph, the zone head of the International Justice Mission (IJM), an international NGO focused on human rights violations, told us that there were CCTVs along the compound. "The people said they were scared to leave because Shantilal had told them there were being watched at all times." We asked him why this wasn't reportedly as widely. "It's an obscure area, not many people know what's happening," he said.
For now, the rescued people are housed in a local school. “The government should provide them with Release Certificates within 24 hours after an inquiry, but nothing has happened,” Raj said. These certificates are crucial, according to Justin Murik, also with IJM, because without them people can't get rehabilitation benefits (such as compensation, or even train tickets home from the Ministry of Labour). This makes families all the more susceptible to being trafficked again. “The Release Certificate is the government record, and officials are usually loath to give it as it is an acknowledgement of bonded labour in that district,” an official from a well known anti-trafficking NGO, who asked not to be named, told us.