Rock quarry slavery survivors in Tamil Nadu welcome stiff sentence for captors

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Survivors of slavery at a rock quarry in Tamil Nadu welcomed a stiff sentence handed to the owner and managers, and said on Monday that the rare ruling sends a strong warning to other employers.

A court in Tamil Nadu found three men guilty of using violence, intimidation and debt bondage to force people to work in the quarry in Tiruvannamalai district, and sentenced them each last week to 11 years and nine months in prison.

India banned bonded labour in 1976, but it remains widespread, and campaigners say that less than two percent of cases result in convictions.

“We didn’t even think our case against the owner of the quarry would be registered to begin with,” said Pachayamma Arul, one of the survivors.

“But we wanted to try, and we wanted justice,” she said by phone.

Arul was rescued with 30 other labourers in 2012, after spending nearly four years in bondage, working alongside her husband to pay off a loan of 15,000 Indian rupees ($202.58).

“This verdict has created a buzz in and around our villages,” said Arul, who is on a local committee set up to look out for bonded labour.

“People are talking about it and I hope that awareness results in other owners being fair to their workers.”

Thousands of bonded labourers are freed each year, but most cases are not registered with officials and police fail to investigate many that are, according to campaigners who say that makes it hard for survivors to get assistance to rebuild their lives.

In response to a public interest litigation filed in the Delhi High Court, police said recently that of the 192 cases of bonded labour registered in the city in the last five years, only three ended in convictions.

“The data is revealing,” said Aditi Gupta, lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network who filed the litigation.

“It shows that in all the other cases, victims are still waiting for their compensation since it is linked to convictions.”

Lawyers attribute the low rates of reporting, prosecution and conviction to a lack of awareness of the bonded labour law and policies on rehabilitation, as well as a poorly resourced and under-funded police and judicial system.

Until recently, people accused of exploiting bonded labourers were commonly made to sit in court for one full work day, according to Kuralamuthan Thandavarayan of the International Justice Mission, an anti-trafficking charity.

“That was the punishment along with a small fine,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The verdict in this case has definitively changed that precedent and paved the way for ensuring real justice for victims.”

($1 = 74.0450 Indian rupees)