Victim-first approach crucial, say activists

Activists and bonded labourers rescued by Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka give expression to their experiences in paintings which were exhibited at an event in Bengaluru on Thursday. DH Photo

Activists working on eradicating bonded labour in villages said a shift in the government’s approach to the problem, from rescuing the victims to punishing the exploiters, has put them in the harm’s way.

Kiran Kamal Prasad, founding member of NGO Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka (Jeevika), said that since 1990s.., they saw threat from landlords but it was rarely organised. He was speaking to DH on the sidelines of an exhibition of paintings by victims of bonded labour system.

"Recently, there has been a change in the approach of the authorities. The rescue and rehabilitation of victims of bonded labour has taken a backseat while emphasis has been laid on punishing the offenders, which has led to complications," he said.

Shobha, an activist from Anekal, said officials in Bengaluru were not doing enough to put an end to the social evil. Shobha and her associates made a list of 171 bonded labourers from various villages in Anekal taluk and also collected details of the offenders.

"We submitted the details to the officials. They conducted an enquiry without even informing us and said our complaint was baseless. After the incident, the landlords in my village ganged up against me and cornered me on several occasions,” she said.

Prasad said officials at the level of assistant commissioners work under pressure from politicians. "The landlords bring political pressure on officials, who end up helping the offenders. There are cases when officials with sympathy towards the victims and activists warn them about threat from landlords. But that doesn’t solve the problem,” he noted.

Muttaiah, a bonded-labour-turned-activist from Maddur, recounted an incident where a woman was kidnapped from her house in Bekkalale, Maddur taluk, after refusing to work in the place of her husband who had died before repaying his loan.

"We managed to capture the video of the kidnapping incident, which helped in the release of the woman. But more than 200 people came armed with sticks and stones to attack us the next day. Thankfully, the assistant commissioner alerted us, helping us save ourselves and the woman. The accused is out on bail and we don’t feel safe,” he said.

It has been less than an year since Sunil Lamani from Ramdurg, Belagavi, was rescued by Jeevika. "The contractor who pushed me into bonded labour is asking me for a cut in my salary. The owner of the stone quarry has been arrested but we have not got any payment from him," he said.

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