Video Volunteers, started by Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K, has been working to free labourers from the clutches of bondage for decades.
Not everyone was sleeping peacefully on those wintry nights of November 2021 in the quaint Chandrapur village of Bhadohi District, Uttar Pradesh. A few of them were anxious and frightened about their family members, who were not in touch with them for almost a month by then.
A woman received an important call that night, the feeble voice of her brother telling her a little about the ordeal they are facing, asking for help. Then the phone got cut off, and her brother mentioned recharging his phone, so that he can call back again.
A month ago, 10 people from Chandrapur were approached by one contractor from Karnataka, Malikarjun Vitthal Khedge, who offered them Rs 10,000 each per month to work in a sugarcane plantation in Walsang, near Solapur in Maharashtra. Though it was 1400 km away from home, their destitution and inability to find work in the lockdown period made them take up the offer pronto.
Their family members found solace in this arrangement and understood they would return in six months. They needed the money, after all. They bade a happy goodbye to their families and started their journey with the contractor, oblivious to what lay ahead.
Labouring in sugarcane plantations is strenuous and back-breaking work. Their days start at dawn and they have to work in the field till midnight. The 10 people toiled hard with a belief that the remuneration will be good, sleeping a few hours in makeshift plastic tents in the midst of the plantation, eating the meagre food in the cold and dry rural Maharashtra in that piercing winter. The contractor, before handing over them to the plantation owner, had given them Rs 500 each as an advance and told them that they would be paid regularly every month.
After one month, when they asked the plantation owner about their salary, they were aghast to hear that they had been sold to him for Rs 6 lakh and that they were not going to get any money from him. The contractor had sold them to work as bonded labourers. They were threatened that if anyone tried to run away or contact their family members, they would be punished.
How to save lives
Practising bonded labour is a crime under Section 374 of the Indian Penal Code and we have The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Despite that, we have some bleak statistics in India. According to the US Department of State report estimated 8 Million (80 Lakh) Indians are victims of trafficking and most of them are compelled to work as ‘bonded labourers’. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that in the Year 2020, 1714 people were trafficked in the country. Out of this 180 were from Uttar Pradesh, fortunately, 174 out of them were rescued. Uttar Pradesh has 35 Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTU) and has implemented a Victim Compensation Scheme for specific crimes including human trafficking and the 6 sections of POCSO (Protection Of Children from Sexual Offenses) Act.
As soon as the sister in Bhadohi got that call, she approached the Video Volunteers (VV) team – community journalists Anil Kumar and Shabnam Begum, and Anshuman Singh, VV’s Field Producer.
It was Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K who founded Video Volunteers in 2003. The team empowers India’s poorest citizens to right the wrongs they witness, using the most evocative medium of videos, to solve their problems.
Intuitively, Anil Kumar knew what was happening, he had seen these contractors luring away people before. He mobilised the community and went to file a report in the local police station. They were assured in the police station that they will look into this matter.
Meanwhile, the VV team recharged the only phone one of the labourer’s had kept hidden from their perpetrator. They started calling the VV team late at night, whispering, while a few of them were guarding and making sure nobody could find a trace. They told about the inhuman, coercive working conditions and the location and details about the contractor who sold them. One of them mentioned: “We never get sufficient food and get beaten up if we try to protest. This is worse than a prison, we do not even get time to take a bath.”
A fortnight passed and their relatives did not hear anything from the police. They went to the police station again, but this time they got abused and told that nothing could be done, as those men had left home willingly. They are Musahars (a Dalit community), the years of subjugation had made them meek but resilient, they came out of the station broken hearted with a determination to get their men back. They contacted VV to tell them about their plight.
The VV team then met the District Commissioner (DC) and Superintendent of Police (SP) about this issue and Anil Kumar could tell the top cops about the phone conversations he had with the labourers. They knew the exact location by now and the SP contacted the Solapur Rural Police about the matter. Anshuman Singh helped the Anti-Trafficking Cell of the Maharashtra Police to arrest the contractor from Karnataka and the Solapur Rural Police made sure that he returned back the dues to these unfortunate labourers. The police then rescued the 10 people and got them train tickets to Bhadohi, constantly keeping track of their journey.
The VV team received them in the station and when they arrived in their village, it was a moment of sheer joy. Anshuman sent their pictures to the Solapur Police and thanked them for their prompt action. The reunited families of Chandrapur village are grateful to the police and the VV team, and they are vigilant now of any new contractors arriving with these kinds of offers.
In the last 10 years, Video Volunteers has reported 85 cases of trafficking and migration, and 15 cases have been resolved through intervention and collaborative action, resulting in the rescue of 40 people across India.
By Nilankur Das for Video Volunteers; Edited by Yoshita Rao