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Breaking the shackles of bondage

Author: Ashfaq Mohammed
Posted on: Wednesday 15th Apr 2015
Breaking the shackles of bondage

The dusk was slowly settling over and the lush green paddy fields swaying in the evening breeze were greeting us on our way to a tiny neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jawaharke village in Punjab’s Mansa district. A group of villagers were waiting there with their stories of suffering, struggle and freedom.

These men and women, mostly from Dalit communities, were all former bonded labourers who have now been released and settled in the area. Free from bondage, but still they are fighting for the rights of the land they live in. And Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ), a local partner NGO of ActionAid India in the region, has been extending them the much-needed support in their struggle for a better life.

VSJ has also initiated a movement called Dalit Dasta Virodhi Andolan (DDVA) that addresses the issues faced by the marginalized communities. And this movement has been able to release thousands of bonded labourers in Punjab and other adjoining states since 1985. DDVA interventions have also helped these released people get employment under the government’s rural employment scheme – Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Jagseer Singh, a former bonded labour who is now the torch bearer of DDVA, says, “It was not easy for us. People who are released from bondage work face social boycott from the upper caste people and landlords. We are denied work, and even grass and fodder for their cattle. But our continued struggle with the help of DDVA and VSJ helped us to get some land to live in.”

Narrating his own story, Jagseer says, “I was 16 years and had just completed my secondary school exams. I was dreaming of joining a college soon. But, my destiny was perhaps written otherwise. I became a bonded labourer for the debt that my father had taken from the landlord.”

“My father worked for the landlord for almost his entire life, but could not repay the debt of 10,000 rupees. And as he was old and not being able to perform as per the landlord’s expectation, I was forced to work instead of my father.

“I had no other choice than to work as a bandhua (bonded labour).”

Jagseer was among the 150 labourers who were released from their bondage through VSJ interventions. However, they had to face a more severe struggle when their landlord influenced other employers to boycott them. After almost two years, their courage finally paid off when they got employment with the Food Corporation of India as labourers. All of them then decided to join DDVA and the movement gained momentum since then.

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