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There was an abundance of fish in the talab (pond) that day, or that’s what Dhanimathi thought drove down the price. She couldn’t remember the last time she squatted near the chulha (stove) to cook a meal for more than just herself. It would soon be time to gather her neighbours to line the concrete road outside her mud hut. The evening bus from Kharsia was expected at around 8pm and on it were her sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Eight years had passed since she last saw them and the reunion was predictably joyous. The weary travellers, who got off the bus in their native village of Amaldia, were held by their hands and led home. The neighbours were eager to help with the luggage, but found the family had brought nothing. The Vishvakarmas sat together that night and devoured the fish Dhanimathi cooked, in the very clothes they travelled in.

Nearly a decade ago, Dhanimathi’s brother-in-law Bahadhur was at home when a well-dressed man had come knocking. In their native Chhattisgarhi, he promised thousands of rupees in advance. His “respectable" look appealed to Bahadhur who, along with his 14-year-old son Tarlochan, used to lift sacks at the local rice mill. “He told us we would make a lot of money if we went to work in Jammu and Kashmir," Bahadhur recalls.

Dhanimathi’s sons were engaged in equally ill-paid, agricultural work; so the family took the bait. The cousins, along with one of their wives and kids, agreed to migrate, eager for a better life.

Years later, in early 2014, they were among 117 bonded labourers from Chhattisgarh who were rescued from a brick kiln in Jammu’s Kathua district. Each of them had been “purchased" for Rs12 lakh.

The family returned to Amaldia in February 2014, visibly changed and fiercely united. Tuberculosis had eaten through much of the lungs of Duje Ram, Dhanimathi’s oldest son. He died three months after he was rescued, leaving his young wife, Vanita, to care for their four children. The family cremated Duje Ram on the same day Amaldia chose a new sarpanch.

Ever since the Vishvakarmas returned, not a single person from Amaldia has migrated to Jammu and Kashmir. “We have been telling a lot of people that they will be deceived like we were if they take up a job there," says Tarlochan. He is now 22 and works 15km away from his village at a restaurant near the Uchpinda power plant, serving chowmein and idlis to engineers from south India.

Tarlochan was initially hired as a helper, but watching the cooks closely at the end of his shift helped him pick up a few recipes here and there. He was promoted to a cook soon after. The way he describes it, his workplace is only good for learning foul language, but he likes it there anyway. His only friend is his neighbour Rajkumar’s son—the boys became friendly working side by side at the brick kiln in Jammu and together sought employment at the restaurant.

“None of the other boys in Amaldia talk to me anymore. They have gone on to do BTech degrees or things to do with computers, which I don’t understand. I have always wanted to study, but I have not had the chance to do so. I have to work now, I have to run this household," says Tarlochan, determined to put his younger brother through school and college.

Jobs are limited in Amaldia. His neighbour Rajkumar stitches torn rice sacks for Re1 per sack at the local rice mill, which the rains will soon shut down. Tarlochan brings home Rs4,500 and leftovers once a month and stays awake late into the night talking to his siblings. The rest of the nights, he sleeps on the hard kitchen floor at Priya Restaurant.

Dhanimathi and Tarlochan share a laugh on one of his days off. Photo: Sowmiya Ashok
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Dhanimathi and Tarlochan share a laugh on one of his days off. Photo: Sowmiya Ashok

***

Half-an-hour’s drive from Amaldia is the sleepy village of Rambhatta, where directions to 32-year-old Om Prakash’s house rest on proximity to the only functional hand pump. The “released bonded labourer", an identity he finds hard to shirk, paid Rs3,500 for the pile of bricks that is stacked to one side of his small courtyard.

For half his lifetime, his family has only made bricks in kilns across Jammu and Kashmir, sometimes receiving as little as Rs480 for a batch of 1,000. He bought bricks for the first time in his life some weeks ago to mend a house he hadn’t lived in for 15 years. The 1,000 deep orange rectangles that glare under the July sun appear far less in quantity.

Photo: Sowmiya Ashok
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Photo: Sowmiya Ashok

It was raining heavily when Om Prakash had stealthily crossed the border from Jammu to Phillaur in Punjab to meet with an “NGO sahib". “I told him we have been stuck for 15 years and there are others with me who have been there for much longer. Some people don’t even know where their native village is," he recalls.

Acting on Om Prakash’s complaint, on the afternoon of 12 February 2014, more than a hundred men, women and children from Chhattisgarh were rescued in a joint operation by two NGOs. However, the district administration in Kathua skipped a crucial step in the rescue process: the issue of release certificates.

Life felt easier at least for the first 7-10 days of returning to Rambhatta. “Our neighbours gave us some clothes and utensils to use. I also borrowed money," says Om Prakash. His family, one of 30 Dalit families in Rambhatta and, according to him, “the poorest", settled into their new lives with no urgency. The village had transformed drastically, putting their mud hut in a minority.

In the months that followed, Om Prakash and his two siblings were among the young men rounded up to cultivate others’ land or gather at the chowk as labour at Rs140 per day. Work was intermittent and Om Prakash considered himself fortunate if he got picked as a daily wager.

On most days, his 60-year-old father Prem Lal pushes his bicycle through the village, selling his wares and straining his vocal chords. Lal doesn’t particularly understand the use of much of what he attempts to sell, but there is demand for it, he says, showing off a bagful of gold-plated earrings, hairclips and bindis.

Prem Lal. Photo: Sowmiya Ashok

Lal, who was a bonded labourer too, pays the sarpanch pati, Teklal Jangde, a visit almost every day to enquire about the family’s ration card, which will allow them access to rice at one-tenth the market price. “Most often, I am told the papers have been misplaced or the paperwork is delayed. We have had a lot of problems because we weren’t given release certificates," he says.

A short walk away from Om Prakash’s hut, Jangde supervises a group of men laying out concrete steps leading to the talab. “In the entire village, Om Prakash’s family is the only one without a ration card. Not a single member of his family was around for all these years and I am doing my best to help them," he says.

Jangde’s wife won the sarpanch election from Rambhatta on a seat reserved for women, but he wields most of the power as the sarpanch pati. The work he is supervising is part of guaranteed employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), for which Om Prakash is not eligible for want of identifying documents.

***

Abishek Joseph was in Kathua on that fateful afternoon when the “raid" by the district administration along with the local police set Tarlochan’s and Om Prakash’s families free. Joseph heads the rehabilitation unit at the International Justice Mission in New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, one of the two NGOs that facilitated the rescue.

He claims the team was welcomed with coffee, plush sofas and the smiling faces of brick kiln owners when it reached the facility—a sign that news of the raid had been leaked through informal channels.

Joseph reiterates the need to conduct a thorough inquiry at the time of the rescue to establish the prevalence of bonded labour. “If an inquiry is not carried out immediately, the obligation to file an FIR against the perpetrator, which could be the contractor or the brick kiln owner, does not even arise," he says.

Of course, the kiln owner denied any kind of labour bondage on the facility and the labourers were packed off without release certificates or the Rs1,000 owed to each of them as rehabilitation money. The remaining Rs19,000 was to be paid by the Chhattisgarh government upon their return to their state. No FIRs were filed in this matter in Kathua on that day with the district administration overlooking serious offences of human trafficking, which has a minimum jail time of 10 years.

The one-page release certificate is “the most important piece of document" in a released bonded labourer’s life, according to Joseph, which lays out in bare details the person’s identity—name, age and place of birth. It warns the perpetrator against “oppressing or intimidating" those who have been released and, most importantly, wipes the slate clean of any debts.

“This document is a photo ID," says Joseph. “Most of these labourers have been away from home for years and do not have a ration card, voter ID or Aadhaar card. With this, you can apply for a bank account and that then becomes the basis for applying for all other identifying documents."

The flimsy paper certificate also fast-tracks integration back home. Ideally, the person should be handed a distinct coloured card, putting him/her on a priority list under the MGNREGS and giving them access to housing under the Indira Awaas Yojana.

Tarlochan and Om Prakash had both heard of a “success story" from their own state, in which over 50 young women and girls who were rescued from a food processing unit in Tamil Nadu. With the release certificates that had been issued at the time of the rescue, they had access to nearly Rs90,000 each when they returned home. The state, recognizing its role as a source for migrant labour, had increased the Union government-prescribed compensation amount of Rs20,000 to Rs50,000 and further by Rs40,000 for people from the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities.

In the Kathua case, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has come to the aid of the rescued families. In a 2015 order, the NHRC found fault with the inquiry the district officials had claimed to have conducted in February 2014, pointing out that the report submitted was silent on the violation of labour and criminal laws.

“Hence, the deputy commissioner (district magistrate), Kathua, is directed to get a fresh inquiry conducted into the matter and send a detailed report, within six weeks, specifically clarifying the above aspects including the steps taken for providing rehabilitation package to the released bonded labourers," the order states.

The six-week limit to respond has since lapsed and there has been no official response. “A report was sent to the labour ministry in Delhi that found there was no instance of bonded labour," said an official from the district administration in Kathua, who did not wish to be named. The labourers Mint spoke to said they had not been approached by the district authorities for any inquiry.

***

The only happy memory that Om Prakash has of the 15 years spent in brick kilns is marrying his wife, Hira. They married in the midst of brick and mortar and began a life that seemed restricted to the whims of their “owner". Hira had given birth to two children before she paid her marital home a visit for the very first time in 2014, only to find broken tiles and holes in the mud walls. “Those years were very tough," she says, focused on peeling the skin off the small potatoes in her hands.

It was a Tuesday, six months after they were rescued from Kathua, when Om Prakash and Hira boarded a train bound for Punjab to work at a brick kiln once again. “Making bricks is the only work I know to do well," he says.

Last season, the rate was Rs650 for 1,000 bricks. Om Prakash plans to return, but to conditions that are far more conducive than Jammu. “The unions in Punjab are stronger. The work is regulated with better facilities and the contractor does not fix arbitrary rates on how much we get paid," he says.

Om Prakash had travelled ticketless on that fateful day he had crossed the border to seek help. He doesn’t any more. “I had no money that day and I hid in the bus as if I had committed a robbery and I was fleeing," he says. He did it for himself, he says, as much as for his wife and children and for his friends Rajkumar and Duje Ram.

Rajkumar. Photo: Sowmiya Ashok
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Rajkumar. Photo: Sowmiya Ashok

Rajkumar remembers that day vividly and recalls how he laughed in excitement when he realized that his family would return home, where his aged parents remained. He sits with his legs folded on his front porch in Amaldia and weeps uncontrollably when he talks about it now.

“Now that we are back, everything is good," he says. “I will never leave Chhattisgarh again."

Sowmiya Ashok tweets at @sowmiyashok

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