A ruthless brick kiln owner, over 6,000 vulnerable labourers and one gusty teenage girl to the rescue — what sounds like a Bollywood movie has in fact turned out to be a reality. A tribal teenage girl from Odisha’s sharp instincts and courageous act has helped rescue over 6,000 labourers trapped in different brick kilns in Tamil Nadu.
Meet 19-year-old Manasi Bariha from Odisha’s Balangir district, trafficked by an agent to Tamil Nadu in lieu of cash incentives. Manasi’s father had taken an advance of Rs 28,000 to pay off debts incurred due to medical expenses of her late mother.
Unable to arrange for the repayment, Manasi, along with her father and 10-year old sister went to Tamil Nadu along with 355 other labourers from Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi districts in Odisha. The local agent took them to the GDM brick kiln in Pudhukuppam in Tiruvallur.
They were promised of good money, but after reaching the spot, the labourers realised they had been cheated. “We had to start work early in the morning around 4.30 am and continued till noon. Then, we were given a break of two hours and again resumed work which continued till late in the evening,” Manasi recalls.
What was most inhumane was the fact that the labourers were paid between Rs 250 and Rs 300 every week or even less, which accounts to less than Rs 30 per day. “My father and I would get Rs 150 each every Sunday. That was all money we could earn,” she says.
Though disturbed by the conditions, the labourers continued to work for six months in order to earn money. However, once the lockdown began they started to get restless and expressed their desire to return home.
The kiln owner promised to let them go, only if they completed the targeted number of bricks within two weeks. Scared of the unknown disease COVID-19 and hoping to return to their villages soon, the labourers did as they were told by the owner. “All of us toiled day and night to complete the bricks so that we could leave for our homes. Our relatives were pressuring us to return and we were scared of the disease as well,” she says.
However, after the completion of the work, the owner retracted on his words and refused to let the workers go. Instead, he continued to force the labourers to continue working throughout the lockdown. When the labourers staged a protest in May, the owner along with some of his men thrashed them mercilessly — sparing neither the women nor the children.“They lost their cool when they saw some of the workers packing their luggage to return home. He called around 50 men who started beating all of us with lathis. Several workers were injured and were bleeding profusely and needed urgent medical attention. My sister was also beaten up,” says Manasi.
Manasi knew it was time for her to act. She somehow managed to slip into a safe place and made frantic calls for help.
“I called up some people in my village who had a media connection. They asked me to send photos and videos of the incident so that they could make them viral and draw the attention of the authorities. We were successful and the police arrived to rescue us.”
With the help of the Tiruvallur district administration and legal authorities, the labourers were rescued and provided with timely medical aid.
While an FIR was lodged against the kiln, the owner of the kiln is absconding. On further probing, the authorities found out that there were 30 other brick kilns where labourers were being forced to work. All of them were ferried to the railway station and sent to their respective states under police guidance.
While Manasi’s act of courage has saved the lives of over 600 labourers, the issue of trafficking workers still continues. In fact, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has turned grimmer for the workers. A study conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research suggests 27 per cent of the households in Odisha have reported no income during the lockdown.
“Unorganised and migrant workers are the most vulnerable to trafficking which has clearly taken the shape of an organised crime now. With Covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it, it is likely that many labourers will be forced into debt for their survival triggering conditions of bondage and even wage-less labour,” says Neenu Thomas, Director (Odisha Projects), International Justice Mission.
Now, back in her village, Manasi still feels unsafe as her future is uncertain. “We managed to return from that place but our problems are far from over. We need to work in order to sustain ourselves. Now, we are working as daily labourers to be able to buy food. But, we need work,” she says.
(Edited by Sruthi Radhakrishan)