From Bondage to Freedom: a Child Labourer’s Story of Resilience
Rahul playing the drums.
Rahul playing the drums.(Photo Courtesy: Priya Abraham/altered by The Quint)

From Bondage to Freedom: a Child Labourer’s Story of Resilience

Twelve-year-old Rahul* (name changed) helps his widowed mother manage a grocery shop in Kalahandi’s Sandharpur village. When not at the shop, he plays the drums at local ceremonies to earn an extra Rs 400, all to support her.

Life might still not be fair but it is definitely a lot better than it was a year ago, when the mother and son were held captive at a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu. Remarkably, it was Rahul’s statement which helped government officials to free as many as 147 people from bondage.

The rescued – 63 women and 31 children – had been confined in the facility for four months in appalling living conditions and subjected to threats and violence.

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“After my father passed away, my mother worked as a daily labourer to make ends meet. I quit studies and started to help out with household chores. We failed to manage our everyday expenses and had to mortgage our plot of land for money.” recalls Rahul.

Pressurised by debt, his mother, Vina* (name changed), decided to accompany her relatives, all of whom were promised Rs 20,000 by a local middleman, to work at a brick kiln in Thiruvallur in Tamil Nadu. Once at the kiln, Vina repeatedly asked for the amount promised to her but was sent away with threats. Even little Rahul was put to work.

Vina used to mould about a 1000 bricks a day, each of which fetched the owner Rs 5-6, as per the then market rate. The pressed clay had to be dried in the sun before being fired in the kiln. Children at the facility, including Rahul, turned the bricks upside down, one by one, at least three times a day under the blazing sun.

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At brick kilns, each family is considered a unit and they work together to pay off the advance they received. It is a common sight to find children ‘helping out’ with the tasks.
At brick kilns, each family is considered a unit and they work together to pay off the advance they received. It is a common sight to find children ‘helping out’ with the tasks.
(Photo Courtesy: iStock)

At brick kilns, each family is considered a unit and they work together to pay off the advance they received. It is a common sight to find children ‘helping out’ with the tasks.

At the time he was rescued, the government officials checked Rahul’s palms and found them to be badly bruised. When asked about his injuries, Rahul narrated his ordeal. Although Rahul had quit studies of his own volition, some other children at the kiln had wanted to study but were forced to give up their schooling.

“The children were physically abused if found playing during work hours.”
Rahul

He added that like him, several other children were made to work without wages.

“My mother and I used to get Rs 200 every week. We were confined (in the kiln) and had no way to quit. Once a week, I was allowed to go out to purchase grocery items but the owner’s men kept an eye on me lest I fled.”
Rahul

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The Path to Freedom

On 14 March 2018, following a tip-off, government officials raided the facility but were caught in a sticky situation when they found the labourers too scared to speak out against the man. None of them agreed to file a complaint.

It was little Rahul who finally plucked up the courage to speak to the officials and relate the labourers’ suffering. Slowly, others followed suit. The officials then rescued the 147 labourers at the kiln. Once the official formalities had been completed, the rescued were ferried back to different districts in Odisha.

“On the day we got rescued, the officials questioned the elders but all of them were too scared to speak. There were some who even denied any violence... but I was not afraid. I trusted the officers and knew they were there to help us. They took me a little further away and asked me about all I had witnessed inside the facility... and I told them everything.”
Rahul

Once the labourers had been rescued, the middleman and the supervisor of the brick kiln were arrested and a chargesheet filed against them. However, no action was taken against the kiln’s owner, and the facility remains functional. Vina received Rs 20,000 as rehabilitation fund and used the money to get back her plot of land. She also established a grocery store which Rahul manages.

The Road Ahead

Children comprise one-third of the labour in brick kilns and work for an average of nine hours a day.
Children comprise one-third of the labour in brick kilns and work for an average of nine hours a day.
)Photo: iStock)

Children comprise one-third of the labour in brick kilns and work for an average of nine hours a day. The World Day Against Child Labour is just a regular day for Rahul at his grocery shop. He meticulously calculates sales and makes a list of items of which the stocks are depleting. Not only does he talk with a marked maturity, but also doesn’t shy away from wearing a lungi, a garment commonly worn by older men in rural Odisha.

“I wish I was a little taller... I would have been paid better,” he laughs, unaware of the childhood he had to give up. 

Sadly, kids born in poverty, readily trade their childhood, playtime and education with the family responsibilities they are saddled with from a very young age.

“I can calculate money and never make mistakes. Also, I am going to get into farming when I grow up... so what is the need of going to school?” he asks.

Rahul’s courage helped him and those around him to break free from the shackles of bonded labour. Albeit willingly, he has to work and help out his mother to run the house instead of pursuing options granted to the more ‘fortunate’, like going to school.

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same. The author is a former journalist who now works with an NGO in Odisha.)

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