Mallesh Badrappa, studies Bachelor’s of Social Work at Madras Christian College, one of the most prestigious educational institutes in Chennai.
He spends his day waking up early, attending online classes, learning English from classmates, eating healthy meals and getting a comfortable night’s sleep.
And while this may seem like a normal routine for a student, Mallesh’s life was quite different just seven years ago when he was rescued from bonded labour on a rose farm.
From the age of six, Mallesh woke up early to graze cattle and spent most of his day dodging thorns to pluck roses from the farms of Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu. Along with abuses, exploitation and ill-treatment, he was served occasional vegetable curry and ragi soup for three meals a day.
While his mother passed away two weeks after giving birth to him, his father died five months after he was born. The reason — he does not know. However, since his birth, Mallesh was blamed for the demise of his mother and was never truly accepted by his siblings.
Mallesh’s Life Between The Thorns
“I lived with my elder brother Marappan, who was in his teens, and my aunt. When I was in class II, I was taken to a farm by my brother and asked to work there,” Mallesh recalls. And that was the end of this childhood.
The 21-year-old says he was unaware of the events that transpired between his sibling and the farm owner or why he was asked to begin work.
“I grazed cows and milked them every morning. After that, I spent the remaining day harvesting tomatoes, rose plants and watering the seasonal vegetable farm,” he recollects and remembers when the owner, Srinivas, arrived one day and physically abused him because the cows damaged the farm while grazing.
“I lived in a small space next to the owner’s residence. My brother occasionally paid a five-minute visit, then met the owner and left,” Mallesh says, suspecting that the brother came to collect money for his labour.
“I was never paid nor given any education. I used to watch the owner’s two daughters go to school and once requested him to allow me to study, too,” he says, adding that the request was denied.
About five years later, Mallesh was taken by his brother and moved to another farm to work for a different owner. “I must’ve been around 10 or 12-years old then. The second owner was more verbally abusive and exploited me even more. I spent more time bleeding from my hands as the thorns would prick me while I plucked roses,” Mallesh tells The Better India.
When asked why he never questioned his brother to take him home, Mallesh says that at such a young age, he felt guilty, obliged and thought he had no option.
IAS Hero to The Rescue
It was only in 2013 that officials from the district administration rescued Mallesh from the farm and relieved him from the clutches of forced labour.
“It was a regular day of working on the farms when suddenly some unknown people surrounded the farm. They approached me and asked what I was doing and noted my personal details. I was asked to be presented before the officer,” Mallesh says.
The government officials were given a tip-off and raided the place. “We came to know about some children working in rose farms as bonded labourers through International Justice Mission (IJM), an organisation working for the cause, and raided different places,” says Praveen P Nair, District Collector of Nagapattinam.
Praveen was posted as deputy collector of Krishnagiri and when the information came in he directed the officials to rescue the children immediately. “Fortunately, the children were alone working in the fields, and the owners were away. We took custody of them and later booked the owners for legal actions,” he adds.
The District Collector says the kids, when found, were “undernourished and stunted in their growth”. “All the officials under guessed their ages by at least two to three years,” he adds.
Praveen says the rescued children or adult labourers mainly belong to the Irular tribe in the region and have weak economic conditions.
He explains, “They live in straw mat houses and often borrow money from landowners for marriages or medical events. These owners help people with money in exchange for labour work for a fixed number of years on the farm.”
However, after the stipulated period, the owner claims to have only covered the interest or the capital and demands more work for covering the remaining cost.
“These amounts are not large, about Rs 20,000 at times. But the owner never claims to have paid off the debts despite overworking the labourers for years, thus forcefully binding them,” Praveen says.
He adds that the parents of these children are apologetic but helpless. “The parents do not comprehend that what they’re doing is blatantly wrong, as they’ve had similar experiences as children. Their poor financial conditions force them to enter the never-ending vicious circle,” he adds.
The IAS officer says the region is known as little England because of the cool weather making it best suitable for rose plantation. “There are many rose nurseries in the area, and it is sad to see children under bonded labour,” he adds.
Praveen says Mallesh, and 15 others, were rescued overtime during his tenure. “A release certificate is issued immediately mentioning that any amount of debt from the owner is paid with immediate effect. It also serves as an identity certificate,” he adds.
These children are sent to government schools to study and reside in hostels. The owners get slapped with different sections of the Indian Penal Code for child labour, exploitation, atrocities against scheduled tribe, bonded labour and other relevant allegations, depending on the case.
Help others like me
However, the hardships for Mallesh did not end here. He was admitted in a government residential school in class VI, under the government education scheme of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, allowing him to complete the gap in his education in a time-bound manner.
“The rescued children like Mallesh are constantly under watch for their well-being. Mallesh informed us that the teachers were constantly demotivating him and even assured him that he would fail the class X board exams given his academic skills,” says Solomon Antony, community relations lead at IJM.
Solomon shares that after completing his Class VIII, Mallesh was moved to the government residential school in Rayakottai at Krishnagiri. “We informed the teachers about the history and requested to show sensitivity towards him,” he adds.
Mallesh adds here that he was satisfied with the change and it helped him build his courage and confidence to complete his board examinations successfully.
“It was quite difficult as I studied for long hours completing all the academics. I did my schooling in Tamil, but got admission in an English medium college after Class X, which made it more challenging,” Mallesh says.
He expressed his ambition to become an IAS officer to help vulnerable children and people like him. And to direct him on the path, the IJM suggested that he pursue a graduate degree in social work.
This student is now spending all his free time working on his English language skills to prepare for the civil services examination. Mallesh’s brother still ostracises him for their mother’s death and refuses to accept him in the family.
Life is beautiful, Says Mallesh
Despite years of exploitation and struggle, Mallesh believes strongly in his own motto — “Whatever we witness in life may not be beautiful. It is what we make of it that makes it beautiful,” he says.
S. M. Santhosh, head of media relations at IJM, says, “Mallesh’s story is a beautiful reminder of the transformation that is possible when all stakeholders join hands together. So many people have played a significant part in his story.”
Santhosh thanks the government and police officials who identified and rescued him, the social workers who helped him open up, teachers at school and college have all helped Mallesh to succeed.
“The children from the tribe to which Mallesh belongs see heavy drop out rates and little to no formal education, eventually landing them into bonded labour. The achievement of Mallesh can be attributed to his strong headedness and positive attitude in life,” Santhosh says.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)