10 May 2018
Kuppan* was struggling to help his impoverished family until a farm owner offered him a loan of 1,000 rupees in exchange for his labour. Just 15 years old at the time, Kuppan had no idea what this loan would actually cost him: three generations of bondage.
For the next thirty years, Kuppan tried to eke out a normal life as he appeased the abusive farm owner. He married Malliga* and had four children—all born in bondage. Two of his children married and had grandchildren—also in bondage. The whole family slogged under the sun and rain, trapped as slaves and far from the eyes of the community.
The farm owner kept these families trapped by manipulating the debts he claimed they owed. He charged radical interest and gave them paltry wages (a crime called bonded labour slavery). Sometimes the men were given 150 rupees per day (about £2) and women, 80 rupees. Often, they went weeks without wages at all.
If the families ever asked to visit relatives or attend a religious festival, the owner held back a few people to ensure that everyone returned to work. And if their return was delayed, he tracked them down in his car, brought them back and added the fuel expenses to their debt. There was no escape.
“[About five years ago,] people came and said they would take us out of here. But they never came back,” Kuppan remembers. “The owner heard about the incident. He said, ‘Did I not tell you that I have people everywhere and that you should not try to escape?’ Saying this, he beat all of us. Since that day we decided to accept our fate and die here.”
But fate had other plans for them. Relatives shared Kuppan’s story with the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association (RBLA) in their community. The RBLA is made up of former slaves who help the local government find and rescue other families suffering. IJM helped rescue many of the RBLA members and has mentored and trained their group to lead the anti-slavery fight.
Kuppan had been let down in the past, but when the RBLA arrived he took a chance and asked for help one last time. An IJM field worker who supports the RBLA recalls, “The labourers said, ‘If you are not going to take us out, please leave it. We’ll die here. But please don’t get us in trouble with the owner’.”
RBLA leaders took the case to the government’s Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), who then rallied a high-level team and executed a rescue operation on May 7, 2018. He freed all 17 victims from the four families, including six children. He also provided Release Certificates to 10 adult survivors—official documents that break their debts and mark their freedom—and gave initial rehabilitation funds to help them adjust to life in freedom.
Over the next few weeks, the government will help these survivors secure land to build homes and get official ID cards. Until they have their own homes, the survivors have moved in with relatives. They will also get bank accounts to receive additional funds for their rehabilitation. The RBLA will also support the families from their own experience—as a powerful witness that restoration is possible.
Hope is already beginning for Kuppan and his family. The morning after the rescue operation, Malliga told one of the IJM field workers, “This is the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had. I don’t have to tie my hands and answer anyone anymore. I am free. I never thought this day would come.”