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Road to Freedom


Three successive days of rescue action - 27th, 28th and 29th January 2004


27th January 2004 was another triumphant day for South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) / Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the partner organisation of Global March Against Child Labour in India. Maya Tamang, an 11-year-old girl was released on that day; she was so happy to return home. It was sheer delight to watch her face beaming with joy and exultation She has regained her natural smile – she cannot be forced to smile as it used to happen while performing in the circus. Now, Maya's dream is to go to school just like her younger brother and her friends. Eight more children would laugh and play as they were liberated along with her from various circuses in New Delhi, India.

It was a very mixed feeling. I must say that those three days were filled with thrill, action, apprehension, fear, joy and victory. On the first day we liberated 9 children from ‘ The Jumbo' and ‘The Great Bombay' circuses; on the second day, 55 stone quarry workers were rescued and 12 children from the roadside kiosks were liberated on the 3 rd day."

The next day, January 28 th , 2004, Janta Kumari, of the same age almost fainted in shock when she suddenly saw live pictures and voices emanating from a strange glass box, when somebody switched on the T.V. in Bal Ashram, one of our rehabilitation centers in India. Janta and 54 more were brought there after a momentous escape from the clutches of their dominating masters. Until morning, life held a different meaning for them. Little did they dream that they would be able to start life afresh. Janta had no idea about schools; she had never touched or seen a piece of paper in her life. And her only dream was to wear a colourful dress and dance.

The following day, on January 29 th 2004, Santosh, a boy of the same age whom we freed along with 11 more from the streets of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, India, struck me with his pessimism. It was distressing to hear such strong words from the heart of a small boy. He said, “ The whole world is full of devious people and life is nothing but a cycle of forgery and cheating.” He was not prepared to believe in me and confessed to me while sitting in the backseat of my car at the time of the rescue that he was struggling to understand ‘who was cheating whom'! It took more than two days to make him understand that now he is free and then only he could express his real happiness of freedom.

It was a very mixed feeling. I must say that those three days were filled with thrill, action, apprehension, fear, joy and victory. On the first day we liberated 9 children from ‘ The Jumbo' and ‘The Great Bombay' circuses; on the second day, 55 stone quarry workers were rescued and 12 children from the roadside kiosks were liberated on the 3 rd day. Several things were common in each of the cases. For instance, none of these freed ones had any idea that before sunset their life would take a completely different turn; the new day would bring them freedom and open new windows to their future. And none would force them to perform hard work and there would be no dangers for women and girls from abusive men during night. It was a complete and total change for them!

Freedom for the children working in circus

In-depth dialogue with Indian Circus Federation

The sequences of these three episodes were very interesting because three entirely different strategies were mapped out for each day. The first success came as a result of in-depth dialogue and series of negotiations with the Indian Circus Federation. My colleagues- Professor Vinay, Rajiv Bharadraj, Bhuwan and Sarita and a few more have been trying to pursue and pressurise the circus owners to get rid of child labour since last year.Children, especially girls form the bulk of the performing artists in the circuses, as they are the main crowd attractions. A majority of artists in Indian Circuses are Nepalese girls who have been trafficked from the interior areas of Nepal under the guile of a great life at a very young age. Traffickers, both Indian and Nepalese, who are in constant touch with the circus management, have a thriving business of procuring girls from in and around certain specific regions by convincing the parents and the families to send their young daughters to Indian circuses by making false promises and distorted claims of fortune, and especially by bribing them. They are forced to live in small tents and beaten and harassed if they ever try to run away. They are never paid properly. Some of the young children who perform on the trapeze nets and swings are forced to smile even when they are too scared to enact these dangerous acts. We have rescued some of them in the past who always complained of being sexually abused. This time, ICF declared that there should be no further use of children in the circuses in India.

Hard work pays off…

As a result of hard work and persuasion of our circus campaign team, a good number of circuses have agreed to liberate children and hand over the Indian children to South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) and its partners, which will take the responsibility of providing education (non-formal or regular). The Nepalese children were handed over to their parents through our partners in Nepal who would ensure their rehabilitation and education. We realised that it is the very hope, which can result in a permanent solution. The process started with a very scientific and concrete study conducted by us before engaging a dialogue with the industry. We collected all the possible information from the key circuses. The legal aspect of it was handled by engaging a professional lawyer. Thus a series of negotiations resulted in a concrete agreement and in the actual process of liberation of the children.

Planning another operation…

While the children were being freed and presented before some of the eminent personalities and the national media in New Delhi, another dangerous and risky operation was buzzing in our heads to carry out the next morning. Bishna Ram, now an activist, was a stone quarry worker. He came to our office to give information along with an old couple whose close relatives and many more were engaged as slave labourers in a stone quarry in Haryana state, about 150 kms, North West from Delhi.

The nitty-gritty of raids

I have a reason for stating as to why this operation had been dangerous and risky. Thousands of families have been forced to live and work in stone quarries in that area for two or three generations. During the last one-year or so, we had liberated a few hundreds in secret raids. In the last few operations, usually we filed complaints before the District Magistrate (DM) who pays little attention to such complaints. After several attempts when he agreed to discuss with us, he diverted us to his Deputy, the Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM). Again my office had to make a rigorous effort to convince him to send his junior officers thereby stretching it to more than a month for us to take action. India had a law since 1976 against bonded labour system and another law against child labour since 1986. It's obligatory for the authorities to take serious action of any information in relation to bonded labourers. But these laws normally remain on paper without adequate political will and honesty.

The rescue of 12 bonded labourers in December 2003…

While liberating bonded labourers in December 2003, we had to run from pillar to post to convince the authorities to come along with us to liberate those people. The SDM asked us to come to his office but we thought that it would be better to go to his official residence. Shockingly, when we reached there, the owner of the stone quarry was emerging from his home. Our biggest surprise was that we never disclosed the name of the quarry owner to the authority but somehow the police managed to extract the information. We accused the SDM but he tried to act innocent by saying that the stone quarry owner's presence was a mere coincidence. After a long heated conversation he agreed to come along with us for the raid in the quarry. This was quarry number 7, about 20 kms from the main road. But these cunning people misled us into quarry number 5. There we found the local goons standing alongside their vehicles. The labourers were in a bad condition, with tattered clothes and worn-out expressions. Assuming that we had reached the right place, we started talking to these people but they were too frightened to speak out openly. We figured that the authorities had manipulated the entire situation three days in advance. I recall a 10-11 year old boy looking at the DM and saying that he played the whole day. But when I asked how he played, he was unable to answer. His face was expressionless because he had no idea what ‘playing' meant. The boy had many bruises all over his body but he denied of working under pressure. The place was not fit for anyone to stay. There was no electricity, water or schools or even any shops nearby. When I questioned an adult about his payments, he mentioned about earning Rs 200 (amounting to approximately 4$) per day. There were four adult members in his family. But when asked about the total earnings of all his family members, he was silent. They stayed in cage-like huts, which was too small, hardly less than 4 feet for anyone to enter. The cramped space showed hardly any sign of their belongings apart from a few torn clothes, let alone hoarding their hard-earned money. It was obvious that they were never given any wages and were forced to lie.

The SDM and the labour officer had a smug expression on their faces and told me, “ Look Kailashji, they are earning so much and are far more better off than us.” Pat came my sarcastic reply, “ Look at your condition and look at his condition. Where does all this money go? It must be going to the bank, isn't it?” Shamelessly they instantly agreed with me. The bonded labourers looked at each other, as they had no idea what a bank was. Seeing the turn of the conversations, the authorities were eager to get over with the interrogations. My blood was boiling with rage. I questioned the SDM and the labour enforcement officer, “ If they earn more than you, then why don't you leave your cushy job and work here instead?” I controlled my anger with an effort to see such blatant corruption. We had no other option but to return. It was frustrating and we were angry but not willing to give up. In the morning while going to this quarry we had come across a number of other clusters. So we thought of going to the nearest one (quarry no. 1), about 20 kms away from the main road. We would talk to them, and if willing would liberate them through direct action. I had to take a swift decision and it was not possible to inform the rest of our rescue team about our impromptu plan, who were hidden in different places.

Hoodwinking the authorities…

We headed for the hotel and gave an impression to the triumphant owners that we were leaving. But it was quite the other way round. When they thought that we had left, I took a full circle and diverted the car towards quarry number 1. This time we didn't inform the authorities, as so much fraudulence and dishonesty was involved. In the meantime I sent one of my colleague to another vehicle to take the local concerned media persons to witness reality in action. 12 were rescued along with six children. The workers lived in appalling condition. Some said that they had been working in the quarry for the past 30-35 years and didn't have any freedom to return to their native hometown. “I have been working in the quarry for the last 14 years and have never been paid any wages nor any proper food, ” lamented Mangalal, one of the oldest among the stone quarry workers. One of the rescued, 12 year old Meera told this work had inflicted many injuries. 9-year-old innocent Sharda said that she never got a chance to rest during work. She told that till date she has never seen money and doesn't know how children play. They all expressed their desire to study.

There was a huge uproar amidst the authorities. The local chief minister denied access to my organisation, SACCS, into the area as these people were visibly put in an embarrassing position when the rescue took place. It put them in a false position as they categorically denied the existence of any bonded labourers in those areas. Later on we heard from so many resources that the Chief Minister and his son under different names actually own the quarries generating huge amount of money. But the fact was hidden as on paper the lease had been given to the henchmen.

A new dawn in the lives of 55 bonded labourers- the second raid

Well, this was the background of previous raids. Due to such antagonism and lack of cooperation or help whatsoever from the authorities, we realised and decided this time that it was impossible to liberate people through official channels. If we informed, then again the same cycle of incidents would take place. We sent our senior activist, Ramsharan, on of our former rescued bonded labourer, to enquire about the original hill number seven. He masqueraded as a relative and stayed there for two-three days on some pretext and gathered the required information like the entry and the escape routes to the hillside, the dangers and the risks involved and the appropriate timings to conduct the operation. For instance he found out that the henchmen armed with guns were not present in the quarries during 5-30 – 7 a.m. in the morning as they went for their refreshment. But otherwise the musclemen were constantly on vigil. So just after the circus raid, equipped with all the necessary information, we fixed 28 th January 2004, to set out to reach the destined place before the break of dawn. So from Delhi we rushed to a hideout, 40kms away from Charkhi Dadri in the Bhiwani district in Haryana and reached at mid-night.

Fraught with thrill…

At 5 a.m. we started our destination towards the stone quarry. It was a foggy morning and the roads were filled with dust and potholes, not an easy ride at all. We took a truck along with us. I was in the first car and hurried the driver time and again as I did not want to waste a single minute."

For several years I have been driving the car during such raids as sometimes the drivers used to flee out of fear. This time as usual I was driving and suddenly noted that the fuel meter of my car was not moving. We looked for a scale or some measuring instrument and eventually found a makeshift stick to gauge the quantity left. To look for a nearby petrol pump was the only option left to us. On top of it we were ravenous and needed some food to energise us. But since it was late at night, it was difficult to find either of them. We moved about erratically and fortunately chanced upon a marriage ceremony from where we got to know about a nearby petrol-pump station, about 10-15 kms away on the National Highway. So there we also saw some roadside ‘dhabas'(restaurants) and helped ourselves with food. One of my colleagues, Rakesh Senger ordered for ‘Paneer' (cottage cheese) and ‘Dal' (lentils) but it proved to be rotten. So we settled for ‘chapattis' (freshly made bread) with boiled potatoes and onions and heartily filled our appetites. It was a great midnight feast filled with fun and thrill. We sipped strongly tea, and I always like it that way during such eventful nights. Then we rushed back to our hideout and began our planning. Each and every minute detail was worked out as to which car would enter first and which escape routes we should be taking. Each and every possible danger was thought of in advance with a back-up plan to make a success of the whole operation not lasting more than half-an-hour. The team members were General secretary R.S. Chaurasia, Dr Narayan Rao, the coordinator, Dr Amit Mitra, the social scientist, Rakesh Senger, Randhir, Neeraj, Vijay Singh, Anil Singh and many more. The operation was given a password, ‘the marriage party' to ensure its secrecy.

It was a foggy morning…

At 5 a.m. we started our destination towards the stone quarry. It was a foggy morning and the roads were filled with dust and potholes, not an easy ride at all. We took a truck along with us. I was in the first car and hurried the driver time and again as I did not want to waste a single minute. We got separated on the way from the rest of our entourage (a truck and two cars) and to add to our difficulties the cell phones were not even working. So we assumed that the rest were behind us and reached the quarry in the wee hours of the morning. It was a small place with 20 odd huts scattered and each of them was not more than 4 feet high so that a person had to bend to enter the tiny space. It looked like a miniscule cage and in that single space, they slept, cooked and ate and stayed huddled with their families. The huts were not more than 6 by 8feet in area and a flimsy plastic sheet covered the roof. The workers were too stunned to react on seeing complete strangers entering their area. It was simply beyond their imagination that anybody could come for their help. That itself was a big challenge for us as one had to struggle hard to convince these people of our sincere aim to liberate them.

Time was running out…

One woman, an ex-bonded labourer, who accompanied us also helped in assuring them and quickly we rushed the whole lot into our car. I was really panic-stricken. Time was running out and there was no sign of the rest our entourage. Vijay kept a constant lookout from atop a hill. Luckily enough, his cell phone started working but then there was response from the other end. The sky was getting clearer and I had to take an instant decision. We put the women and children first into my car and convinced the men to stay back and told them a truck would soon arrive to rescue and accommodate them. You won't believe that 18 were herded like cattle inside the car and then we rushed back. But there was another tension on the back of my mind that whether I should be taking the same route while returning as there was every possibility of my teammates being detained or attacked by the local goons. But somehow I followed my instinct and took the same road, as I was also worried about my colleagues. Fortunately on the way I met them and to my great joy I saw the truck being followed by two cars. The road very dusty and was hampering the visibility despite the fog receding. So with our complete train of support, we again rushed back to the spot of rescue and hoarded the remaining labourers into the truck. The entire operation took place within few minutes. It was swift and according to our plan and we reached the road around 7 a.m. Then we drove like maniacs and took a different road altogether towards Rajasthan. It was an adventurous and challenging operation but worth the risk-- especially when it meant giving back the life and dreams to those 55 men, women and children, to which they were denied for so long.

The rescued ones speak their hearts out…

Since they belonged to the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, on our way, we brought them to Bal Ashram for two days to complete the legal formalities. The media was also present to capture the feelings and emotions of the rescued labourers. Sukhdevi burst into tears while talking to me. “All my children were born and brought up in slavery; their children too were born and started working here. We were sold to several masters in these years. Our hands had never touched any money, except some wheat flour and salt with chilly for our survival, ” she lamented. Sukhdevi (70), Baaga (30) and Mandar (9) were among those who represented three generations of bonded labour.

The released children Kamla, Janta, Santa, Mahendra, Munna and Daiya were forced to break the huge stones in the quarries. They do not even know the meaning of school or reading or writing. Even their parents could not imagine of books beyond signing on blank papers on which they have been putting their thumb inscriptions of the diaries of their contractors. The taste of biscuits, tea and sweets are unknown to them. At first they were too scared to open up. But later they started warming up to us, and became happy and started dancing Janta's dream of wearing a colourful new dress was fulfilled and she started prancing and singing in joy—it seemed as if she had got back her lost childhood. All this could materialise due to the approach of direct action, which we adopted due to the non-cooperation of the authorities. The celebration was going on but at the same time we were planning for another operation the next day.

More child labourers rescued in the third raid

12 freed from roadside ‘dhabas'

Now we come to the third day and our third way of approach. We were informed about this due to a complaint filed in our office in Bihar by a woman, Bulandi Devi, about her missing grandchild. She came to our office in Bihar to get her grandson back and also brought complaints of other parents from different villages of the Madhubani district of Bihar. The parents of these children had complained that these children were lured away from different villages in Madhubani district in Bihar and sent to Jaipur by scheming middlemen who promised them good wages and a decent life. The local activists of the district of Jaipur, 80 kilometres away from Bal Ashram, the state capital, popularly known as the pink city, gathered information about systematic trafficking of a large number of children in several places from Bihar to Jaipur. These traffickers are popularly known as the ‘thekedars' and fearlessly brought girls and boys from remote districts of Bihar and Jai in collusion with the local police of both the states. Some of the places were identified very carefully where these trafficked children were held in appalling conditions and forced to work in some food kiosks (roadside restaurants). Ironically most of them were situated in front of the ‘ Adarshnagar' (morality) police station in the city. The raid could take place after a month long persuasion and preparation and the district authorities were made to agree to help us in rescuing the children. Thus our investigation was initiated. Finally the District Magistrate issued a direction to the Sub-district magistrate who further referred to the revenue officer who was also busy and so passed it on to his Deputy. Assistant Labour Commission of the area accompanied him and a surprise raid was finally conducted.

The employers were running helter-skelter, leaving their shops and ‘dhabas'…

Bulandi Devi's grandson Dinesh was found working in that area and the two officers started interrogating him as if he was the culprit instead of the employer. This kind of behaviour enraged me intensely and I shouted at the officer on the fact they should know how to handle the case and should talk to children with respect. I think that was enough. They calmed down and more or less handed the situation to us. Then we conducted raids in all the nearby restaurants and houses. It was a picture of total chaos. The employers were running helter skelter, leaving their shops and ‘dhabas'. Our charged-up activists were catching hold of the culprits. The whole operation went on for two hours and in the midst of it we caught hold of two employers and a trafficker and made them pay the due money to the children. A huge crowd gathered to watch the action. Children collected their meagre belongings, a small sack filled with one or two tattered clothes. Their whole lifetime hard work and earnings amounted to these scanty belongings. Our activists started talking to the children to break the ice. Sanjay, 13 said he was not paid any salary for the last one year despite working hard for long hours. For 12-year-old Santosh exploitation started from his school where his schoolteacher compelled him to leave school for his vested interest. His employers and even his own relatives also cheated him. No wonder he was so suspicious of everyone and not willing to believe in anyone at the time of the rescue. But now after staying us he wants to study and dreams of becoming a doctor. They were made to work for over 16 hours a day in unhygienic conditions and were beaten up if they asked for wages.

In the midst of chaos, the officers who had come to inspect had fled. But later someone came to register the names of the children. In this approach we used district authorities and a case was registered against some of the employers by the Labour Department of Jaipur. This was our third approach of legal enforcement.

Who will act if not us?

There are various strategies in solving the problem of child labour and bonded labour. There is intervention, advocacy, raid and rescue, social boycott, etc. and depending upon the condition, the most appropriate form of strategy is adopted to curb the problem of child labour in any given place. Whichever strategies are drawn, whatever good laws we have---those cannot be translated into action unless we feel a great sense of urgency and passion to fulfill the urgency. Action is the only solution. Think of a situation where some problem or trouble befalls a family or a relative. What will you do? In such circumstances we don't wait to organise workshops or conferences. We don't wait to act till someone comes and helps us with funds or in any other way. The reality is that we collect all our energies and resources, we shout, we cry, we pick up the phones and call our relatives, and are suddenly empowered with a feeling of urgency. And then we act. Sometimes it may not be fully wise or appropriate or even successful. Even then we keep on fighting and do not give up to rescue ourselves from the problem. So my question is that who are Janta, Santosh, Sanjay or Dinesh? We all know about their biological parents and that they may not be capable due to ignorance, illiteracy and lack of knowledge of the outside world. They may not be having any idea about the rules of these laws. They many not be having sufficient money and are thereby helpless and hapless. Does it mean that those who think or claim themselves to be socially conscious and concerned should wait and watch? If so, then this would be the greatest injustice to ourselves and to those children who one day would be the future of our country!

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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