Big Story 10

From captivity to leaders: ex-bonded workers herald change in India

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The election of three former bonded laborers to village councils on Wednesday is a game-changer for millions in India who are trafficked to work and pay off debts, experts said.

One of the trailblazing winners was Kudumula Devamma, 40, who spent two decades fishing to repay loans taken by her father-in-law and husband in southern Telangana state.

More than 100 laborers, some of whom had been in bondage for three generations, were forced to sell their catch to the abusive family that owned the boats, who used intimidation to prevent them leaving the village, before being rescued in 2016.

“It is something I never ever dreamt of,” Devamma - one the first female former bonded laborers to be elected to a panchayat or village council - told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“My first priority is to improve the condition of my community and help them stay free.”

Millions of bonded laborers work in India in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels and as domestic workers to pay off loans. Most are illiterate, keep no records, are paid a pittance and do not know how long it will take to pay off their debt.

Two others survivors of debt bondage, the most prevalent form of slavery in India despite being banned in 1976, were also elected to councils in the area.

India announced an ambitious goal in 2016 to rescue more than 18 million bonded laborers by 2030.

But freedom is rarely enough to enable former slaves to move on. Most rescued workers battle “captivity mentality” as they are too scared to admit to suffering, such as sexual abuse, for fear of retribution from their former owners, counselors say.

“What these men and women have achieved is quite remarkable and will change the rules of the game here,” said C. H. Vasudeva Rao, project coordinator with the charity Foundation for Sustainable Development, which rescues bonded laborers.

“Their journey from captivity to being leaders is inspirational ... Today’s victory is a great opportunity to speed up the rehabilitation for others in the area.”

Campaigners hope Wednesday’s poll victory will raise awareness about modern day slavery and ensure other rescued workers access government schemes offering compensation, housing and employment via village councils.

When Renu Devi - rescued from agricultural bondage in 2014 - narrowly beat her “owner’s” candidate in panchayat elections in eastern Bihar state in 2017, her first move was to build a road connecting her village to the rest of the region.

“It takes months of ‘freedom training’ before a rescued workers finds the confidence to even speak up,” said Zahid Hussain, program coordinator with Justice Ventures International, a local anti-trafficking charity.

“When I first met Renu Devi, she was scared and didn’t speak at all. Today she is too bold.”

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit