In a rare display of courage and presence of mind, a 19-year-old tribal girl from Odisha’s Balangir district helped free more than 6000 labourers trapped in different brick kilns of Tamil Nadu during the Covid 19 pandemic.
The teenager – Manasi Bariha managed to do so after she mustered courage and alerted her relatives about the kiln owner’s brutal attack on the workers wanting to return home during the lockdown.
Manasi along with 355 other labourers hailing from Odisha’s Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi districts were working at the GDM brick kiln in Pudhukuppam in Tiruvallur.
The owner had sourced the labourers through a labour agent using cash advances as bait.
Manasi’s family comprising her father and younger sister had taken an advance of Rs 28,000 in order to pay off their debts incurred for medical expenses of her late mother.
The labourers had already been at the kiln for six months now without any facilities on wages as low as Rs. 250 a week. However, with the announcement of the shutdown, the labourers began to worry about their return.
The labourers used to work from 4 am to 10 30 am and from 3 pm to 10 30 pm and paid Rs 250 to Rs 300, once every week to purchase essentials from a nearby shop. This was less than Rs 30 per day.
They approached the kiln owner who promised to leave them if they complete the targeted number of bricks within a week. All the labourers put in their best to complete the targeted number of bricks.
“All of us toiled day and night to complete the bricks so that we could leave for home. Our relatives were pressurising us to return and we were scared of the disease as well,” recalls Manasi.
However, when the labourers, after completion of their work, approached the owner, he refused to let them go. The owner used his men to pull the workers out of their shanties at the kiln and force them to continue making bricks.
On May 18, when the workers protested, the owner and his men thrashed all of them mercilessly. Neither the women nor children were spared.
“They lost their cool when they saw some of the workers packing their luggage to return home. The men pulled out lathis and went berserk with their brutal attack.
The workers were bleeding profusely. Some were left grievously injured in the incident and needed urgent medical attention.
They broke the rib bone of one of the workers while many received a head injury,” recalls Manasi.
The girl mustered all her courage and quickly slipped into a safe space from where she made frantic calls for help.
“I called up almost all the numbers on my mobile and shared the photos, audios and videos of the injured men to all whats app contacts appealing for urgent help.
I knew that the owner will not take us to the hospital and some might die of profuse bleeding,” Manasi shares.
Meanwhile, the gruesome images of labourers bleeding profusely sent by Manasi surfaced on social media.
One of Manasi’s acquaintance reached out to a voluntary organization for help which quickly worked with the Tiruvallur district administration and legal authorities to rescue the labourers expeditiously. The injured labourers were taken to a hospital.
An FIR was lodged against the kiln. While the accomplices of the owner were arrested, the owner Munuswami, managed to abscond.
The Government also enquired about other brick kilns in the area and learnt about migrant workers trapped in difficult conditions. Majority of them were Odia workers.
Subsequently, workers in as many as 30 brick kilns in Tiruvallur were rescued and allotted special trains for their travel so they can return home comfortably.
The government arranged for about 150 buses ferried 6750 labourers, including the 355 labourers (from the kiln in which Manasi was working) to the railway station to board trains to their homes in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh between 19 th and 20 th May. Police officials travelled along with them to ensure safety throughout the journey.
Close to 60% of the people of Odisha are coping with the pandemic by using their savings and selling out their assets. 27% of the household in Odisha have reported no income during the lockdown, states a a recent study conducted by The National Council of Applied Economic Research
“Unorganised and migrant workers are the most vulnerable to trafficking which has clearly taken the shape of organised crime now.
With Covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it, it is likely that many labourers will be forced into debt for their survival triggering conditions of bondage and even wage-less labour.
Unfortunately, the children will suffer too. It is hence important for the government as well as the civil society to come together to address this vulnerability and to ensure that the poor claim their entitlements and benefits,” stated Neenu Thomas, Director (Odisha Projects), International Justice Mission that works on Human Trafficking.
Police sources revealed that the owner identified as Munuswamy of GDM brick kiln was a habitual offender found guilty for the third time.
The same brick kiln had been raided in 2015 rescuing 333 labourers following a second rescue in 2016, freeing 328 labourers. Both times, FIRs were filed against the owner, but he absconded.