Dayalu Nial’s suffering finally ended in December last year when a court gave life sentences to eight men who trafficked him, tortured him, chopped off his hand and left him to die.
It took three years and knocking on many doors – from police and lawyers to doctors and activists – but it was worth the peace he now feels, said the 20-year-old former bonded labourer.
“It felt good to get justice for what they did. I didn’t think they would get punished, or even if I would get compensation,” said Nial, a softly-spoken man wearing a brown faux leather jacket.
“I know I was luckier than other people who have been rescued from slavery. The media supported me and that helped pressure authorities to pursue the case.”
Nial’s success in gaining justice is the exception rather than the rule, where thousands of people freed from slavery on construction sites, in brick kilns and farms among other places struggle for official recognition.
Despite having the most slaves in the world, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, India’s poor enforcement of a four-decade-old bonded labour law and its under-resourced police and judiciary means few victims are given support – and fewer perpetrators punished, experts say.
“We have an Act against bonded labour, but most officials don’t know it,” said Anil Kumar Parashar, former member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an autonomous body established by the government to investigate such violations.
“In many cases, they refuse a case is bonded labour. There are also big challenges in getting compensation. So the NHRC needs more manpower to help create awareness of the laws and policies at local level and investigate cases properly.”
Enslaved in brothels, brick kilns
Bonded and forced labour – where a person is made to work through the use of violence or intimidation or more subtle means such as accumulated debt – are some of the oldest forms of slavery in the world.
There are an estimated 46 million people enslaved worldwide with more than 18 million of them in India, the latest Global Slavery Index by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation shows.
While the government cannot verify these figures, the labour ministry recently announced plans to identify, rescue and help bonded labourers by 2030.
Many are villagers lured by traffickers with the promise of a good job and an advance payment, only to find themselves forced to toil in fields or brick kilns, enslaved in brothels or confined as maids to pay off debt.
Other forms of slavery include inter-generational bonded labour, forced child labour, forced begging and forced marriage as well as the forced recruitment into armed rebel groups.
Thousands of bonded labourers are freed every year, activists say, but their cases are unregistered, or remain uninvestigated – making it impossible for them to get financial aid, justice or help rebuilding their lives.
“We rescue around 500 people every year, and only in about 10% of cases do they get compensation. There is not single prosecution,” said Chandan Kumar from ActionAid India.
Low rates of conviction
On a cold winter morning outside a run-down conference hall in the heart of the New Delhi, half a dozen or so former bonded labourers in wool hats and jackets with collars turned up huddle around, swapping tales of abuse and confinement.
The young men have gathered for a meeting held by the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour – a coalition of charities, activists and lawyers working to end slavery in India.
Mostly in their twenties and thirties, the men talk of being beaten and locked in rooms on building sites or in animal sheds on cotton farms.
“The landlord gave Rs 10,000 to my family as a loan and I went to work on his farm in return,” said 26-year-old Bharat from Madhya Pradesh.
“But he kept me there for two years, making me work for up to 15 hours daily. I was rescued by activists in January 2015. Police have registered the case, but nothing has happened.”
Others from Uttar Pradesh in the north and Odisha in the east recount waiting in vain for compensation and losing hope of seeing those who once incarcerated them, behind bars themselves.
“I have a government release certificate which entitles me to compensation, but I haven’t got anything so far,” said 26-year-old Pushub, who was confined on a construction site compound for over two months in Noida, a town near Delhi.
“Even the building contractor who did this to me has run away. No one knows where he is. I don’t think he will ever go to prison.”
Despite the high prevalence of such cases, only 92 cases of bonded labour were registered in 2015, of which just one case resulted in a conviction and the imprisonment of four people, National Crime Records Bureau data shows.
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.
Police do not have adequate training and are insensitive to impoverished, illiterate victims, often deterring them from registering cases. Local officials are also reluctant to pay out compensation, which can reach up to Rs 300,000.
Even if bonded labour cases are pursued in the courts, victims often wait years for a verdict. There are fewer courts, judges and prosecutors for India’s 1.3 billion people – and there is a backlog of millions of cases pending.
Activists also blame low conviction rates on weak investigations by the police and prosecutors, and a lack of protection for witnesses and victims who can be intimidated into changing their statements or dropping charges during the trial.
Know the law, engage the media
Despite the challenges faced by former bonded labourers in gaining justice and compensation, human rights lawyers say there is reason to be optimistic, citing the verdict in Nial’s case announced last month by a court in Odisha.
In December 2013, Nial was one of 12 labourers who were paid by a trafficker to work, but ended up trapped in slavery.
When the labourers realised they were being taken to work in a different location than agreed, they tried to escape but Nial and another man Nilambar Dhangdamajhi were caught by the traffickers and their right hands chopped off.
Dhirendra Nath Patra, public prosecutor in the case, said he had to research the law on bonded labour to fight the case of torture and confinement which made national headlines.
“The trial took three years, which is considered speedy … and the eight men got the strictest punishment which is life imprisonment,” he said.
Due to media publicity over the case, the Supreme Court intervened in 2014 and asked the Odisha government to fast track charges against the traffickers and provide aid to the two men.
Both received around Rs 8 lakh each in compensation from the government, yet only Nial saw his perpetrators punished.
Dhangdamajhi, 35, died on September 21 last year – three months before the verdict was announced.
“I felt bad when I heard about his death,” said Nial. “He should have lived to hear the verdict. Maybe he would feel the peace and closure that I feel now.”