“I can never see my daughter again, she is no more,” Vinod told me as I was trying to find a way to start a conversation with him. I could see the pain in his eyes as he wiped the corner of his eye; maybe he was trying to hide his tears because he needed to retain the strength for all his way back home.
Vinod Kerketta belongs to a Tea Tribe community in Assam’s Golaghat district. Leaving his family behind in Naharbari village, he went to Kerala earlier this year in search of decent work. While working in Kerala, he got the news about his daughter’s sickness. The first thing he did was to send all his earnings to his family in Assam for the treatment of his 5-year-old daughter, and then he barely managed to arrange for a train ticket to Assam.
He was penniless when he boarded the train, but he did not care. His only concern was to be home for his daughter as soon as he could. During the journey, he did not have any money left to buy a water bottle, so he got off the train at a station to have some water from the tap and got caught by his trafficker. “A man caught me by my arms while I was looking for a tap. He dragged me. I did not know which station that was.” Vinod helplessly recollected.
The journey back home took a twist here. Vinod was taken and locked in a room by his trafficker. “There were some 11 other people locked in the same room”, he says. Vinod was told that he was being taken to Delhi for work with other people. “I told him that I needed to go to Assam, let me go. I do not want to go to Delhi.” Vinod said he was taken to a construction site, not in Delhi but Sonipat, Haryana and was told that he has to work there for two months, and then, he will be sent home. “He told me that if I work for him, he will help me get home. I wanted to be at home. I wanted to see my daughter.”
He paused, looked up and continued, “I had no other option but to agree. We had to work from eight the morning till eight in the evening. We were put in small rooms made of tin, where we spent the nights sleeping on the ground. We were beaten if we refused to work.” Working in hell and thinking of his sick daughter, he was desperate to get out. He managed to borrow a mobile phone from the person who brought him to Sonipat. He contacted his family and informed them of his whereabouts. His sister-in-law then called Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in Delhi and contacted Nirmal Gorana, an activist and asked for help. Nirmal works with workers in the informal sector and associated with a non-profit organization named ActionAid India.
Nirmal said, “I received a call from CBCI Secretariat. I was told about the case. I informed Special Police Unit for North East Region (SPUNR) in Delhi and the deputy commissioner of Police, Sonipat, Haryana. Staff from CBCI and I went to Sonipat and registered a complaint in Rai police station. After that, the rescue happened with the help of local police.”
The day turned unfortunate when Vinod got off the train, and the tragedy followed. But there are evident cases of trafficking and bonded labour we encounter day by day, at least, those that come in the news or where victims are rescued. In August last week, 19 residents of Uttar Pradesh, including women and children were rescued from a jaggery factory in Pune, Maharashtra. They were promised work for 10,000 per month in a factory, and they received none but forced labour, abusive workplace, and poor condition to live after being taken to Pune.
There was another case where people in some urgent financial need were given advance payment against work in a brick kiln. These 61 workers from Uttar Pradesh were taken to Gujarat, forced to work for long hours for very less money for their survival that is again desultory and then gets inhumanly discharged one day without being paid.
“We have filed petitions regarding the implementation of Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 in several high courts including Guwahati and Agartala high courts. Because of the lack of proper and strict implementation of the act, nearly a thousand informal sector workers get trafficked every year, and in 99% of cases, victims of trafficking get caught in bonded labour,” said Nirmal.
Under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, all migrant workers have to be registered with the concerned department, which keeps track of the workers’ security. Had Vinod Kerketta been registered at the time when he migrated from Assam to Kerala for work, he could be saved from the suffering he had been through.
Vinod was rescued with the help of the local administration and brought to Delhi. As the story is being written, he is being accompanied to his home in Naharbari village of Assam. Vinod is on his way home at last, but all I see is a devastated father who is now travelling home with the heart-breaking thought that his beloved daughter will not be there standing at the door waiting for him.
Disclaimer: The article has been initially published on Youth Ki Awaaz. Views expressed in the article are of the author’s.
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