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Justice for Shivamma: Karnataka’s first conviction under bonded labour trafficking

“My son rang up from his village saying that our photos had come in the newspapers,” Shivamma exclaims. “He told us how Nanjappa (the kiln owner) had been sentenced to ten years in prison for exploiting us.”

Years after the rescue, on March 10th 2017, bonded labour survivor Shivamma and her family learned that the brick kiln owner who had held them in bondage for almost five years had been convicted for his crimes. 

The landmark judgement sentenced the trafficker to ten years of rigorous imprisonment and imposed a penalty of ₹16,000 on him under the IPC 370 (Trafficking of Persons) and Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. The verdict is the very first of its kind in Karnataka where a perpetrator has been convicted under IPC 370 for a bonded labour trafficking crime.

The lead advocate in the case points out: “This judgment in the NBI case is significant and substantial and follows the 2013 amendment to Indian Penal Code (Trafficking of Persons). It is the first case of conviction under Bonded Labour Trafficking in Karnataka and the first of its kind to have the longest sentence of ten years handed out in a Bonded Labour case.”

When Shivamma’s family accepted the advance of ₹15,000, they were unaware of their rights and little did they know that the owner would later use the advance as a ploy to force them to work, to restrict their freedom of movement and to justify beating them if they tried to resist. They were told they were allowed to leave only upon repayment of the loan that they had borrowed. The owner deluded the family into believing that their current outstanding amount had escalated to ₹140,000 with the accrued interests. They were made to work for more than twelve hours every day and forced to make 1000 bricks per day. A family was compensated just a meagre amount of ₹1000 a week for their sustenance.

Shivamma and her family now understand that bonded labour is a crime and that human beings cannot be coerced to work with below minimum wage or no pay. However, 62 – year old Shivaiah, Shivamma’s father regrets the decision that has almost ruined his own family. “My wife and I are old; we will die soon. Our sorrow was (for) our children and we grieved even more about our grandchildren who were thrown into bondage because of my decision. I could not bear to see them deprived of a future.”

Today, Shivaiah, his children and grandchildren are bravely taking steps along the road towards restoration. The adults in the family works in different daily wage jobs. From ‘beings caged birds to mounting on their wings of freedom’, their message for many others who are possibly in bondage at this hour is – “Be bold, stand up for your rights.”