11 boys rescued; the urban face of bonded labour

This week, our office was engaged in a rescue of eleven boys from Jharkhand who had been working selling snacks — pani puri — in Coles Park, a park in a relatively affluent neighborhood in Bangalore.

Here’s how the Times of India — incidentally, the largest circulation English language newspaper in the world — reported on it:

Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) along with the help of district administration and the labour department rescued 11 boys found working on the roadside eateries especially at the chat stalls near Coles Park on Wednesday morning.

The authorities swung into action after being alerted by International Justice Mission (IJM), an global human rights organization.

The boys hailed from Koderma district in Jharkhand and most of them were found working as bonded laborers, selling Pani Puri in Coles Park.

The boys, between the ages of 12-20 years were employed by two businessmen, both brothers from Jharkhand.

The New Indian Express additionally noted that the “police have arrested Pinto (30), one of the supervisors at the chat outlets, as the owners were out of station for a wedding. The accused have been booked under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, and under section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. ” (IPC 370 is the human trafficking statute) Additionally, a newspaper in Jharkhand, where the boys and the businessmen are from, carried the story, in Hindi.

In this case, these boys — bonded labourers denied various freedoms — were selling snacks to the public in an affluent neighborhood, probably to the students in several nearby middle and upper-middle class schools.

This case is interesting because it illustrates that forced labour is not just a phenomenon of rural areas, which is often the image that many people in South Asia have. They  imagine a caste-based agricultural system in which there is a paternalistic exploitation.

And while this certainly  exists across South Asia, there is an urban story that is quite real, as this and other cases illustrate. With crushing poverty in rural areas — in places like Jharkhand or Odisha — people take whatever opportunity is available, even if the opportunity is an illusion and turns into a nightmare. Often that means migration to another more affluent and more booming part of the country, often the South or a city. In those places, they lose contact with family and may be isolated by language and other differences, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

This urban pattern is important because as South Asia urbanizes, grows and develops, forced labour isn’t going away. It is increasing. That makes the urgency of responding much greater.

Consider two  other stories in the last couple of months.

Several weeks ago the State Human Rights Commission rescued people, again from these same poorer parts of the country, who were forced to live on the roof of their factory in “inhuman conditions,” according to The Hindu:

A team of officials from the Revenue Department on Thursday found about 100 youth, aged between 21 and 26, working in inhuman conditions in a factory on Hosur Road. The surprise inspection followed a direction from the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which had received a complaint alleging that the company had employed bonded labourers.

A majority of the employees, who are from different parts of the country including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and northern parts of Karnataka, claimed to be diploma holders and had been appointed as interns with a remuneration of Rs 8,500 per month for eight hours of work every day, Tahsildar (Enforcement), Revenue Department, Chudamani told The Hindu.

This story of two men working for 22 years in a pan shop in Old Delhi, isolated from their family and exploited and beaten until rescued by Justice Ventures International, shows illustrates how forced labour continues in contemporary, urban South Asia:

The men worked in the pan shop for 22 years.  Ram Charan was 35 when he came to Delhi.  His father and mother both passed away while he was in the city, but he was not allowed to leave even to mourn their deaths.

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