ALL Prabhu Dayal left behind was a couple of clothes, a few magazines and a roll of cotton. Every night, he would sift through the magazines for pictures — he couldn’t read -— and, just before he turned in, would stuff some cotton into his ears to block the noise of trains from the railway station just 350 metres from his home. The clothes, a yellow checked shirt, a green shirt and black trousers, occupied every other hour of his days.
Family members say Dayal, 42, had bought the clothes over a decade ago, for a cousin’s wedding. He borrowed Rs 1,000 to purchase them and a wedding gift; had been repaying the amount since; and, on February 25, was allegedly burnt alive by men working for his employer, who had lent him that money.
Visitors have been streaming into the double-storey house where Dayal spent his life, in the narrow lanes of Old Firozabad’s Azad Nagar, since.
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Rakesh Kumar, Dayal’s uncle, is surprised at all the attention. In this Dalit locality where almost 10,000 people live on the scraps of the city’s Rs 1,200-crore bangle industry, employing over 2.5 lakh workers in all, stories like Dayal’s — of a lifetime spent in debt — are not uncommon.
Rakesh, 61, says all 13 members of his extended family are part of the bangle business. While bangles are made in factories, these are not circular at the time but long wires. The factory owners send these wires, cut to different sizes, to contractors to be folded into bangles. The contractors in turn employ people like Dayal, Rakesh and his family.
At their home, Rakesh’s daughter-in-law Reena is busy counting bangles and tying them in bundles while breastfeeding her nine-month-old son. Husband Om Prakash sits next to her, fixing the broken ones over a small lantern. Rakesh is sweeping the floor to ensure remains of the bangles don’t hurt the children, running around barefeet.
On good days, the family can earn Rs 500-600 a day, just about enough for the 13-member household. However, business has been down since demonetisation.
When they need extra money, as Dayal did, employers are their only resort. The employers deduct the money owed from their wages. Like Dayal, most of the labourers are uneducated, and go by what they are told by the employers on how much money remains to be paid back. With no government schools nearby, hardly any children study, and start helping out the elders from childhood.
Dayal’s parents, who died when he was very young, were bangle makers too. Rakesh’s sister Darshan Devi, who raised Dayal, says the children know better than to complain. “What else do we know?” she says. “What else can we do?”
In summer, when temperatures go up to 45 degrees Celsius in Firozabad, it gets the hardest to work over fire to fix the bangles. So many of them keep a bucket of water next to them. At intervals, they dip into it and pour some water over themselves.
Rakesh says Dayal had borrowed Rs 1,000 from his employer Ranveer Singh for the wedding. “He got just Rs 700 in hand as Rs 300 was deducted as part of the first instalment. Since then, he had been repaying the loan, Rs 150 every month, and had almost returned Rs 20,000, but Singh always told him some money was remaining. It’s not just Prabhu but we are all slaves of our employers, because of the money we take from them during emergencies,” says Rakesh.
On February 24, Dayal had fallen ill and wasn’t able to report for work that day and the next. Family members say they can’t remember the last time he didn’t go to work. Most of them work even through festivals, carrying the bangles home if the factory is closed.
At 8 am on February 25, Ranveer Singh’s son Satish and his men allegedly came to their home and dragged Dayal to their bangle unit. Family members say Dayal kept pleading that he would turn up for work when he got better, but they ignored him.
Keshav, 15, who also works at Ranveer Singh’s bangle unit and claims to have seen Dayal being set on fire, says the 42-year-old struggled to hold the bangles in his hands, and was attacked with the same lantern that he used to fix broken bangles, by Satish and the others. “Aag laga diye wo. Hum ghabra ke bhaag aaye. Dekha nahin jaa raha tha jab wo chilla raha tha (They just burnt him. We fled in fear. I couldn’t bear to see him screaming),” says Keshav, afraid to say more due to the fear of Ranveer Singh. Dayal was brought to hospital with 70 per cent burns, and died the next day.
The bangle unit, in Gali No. 4, Azad Nagar, employs 50 people. An upper caste, Singh and his nine sons are influential and much feared in Azad Nagar.
Keshav’s father Ram Saran says he was forced to send his 15-year-old to work for Singh because of the money he owed him. “I borrowed Rs 1,000 around six years ago. I am still repaying it,” he says. He needed the money as his wife was pregnant. They have six children.
Talking about how Singh’s wealth gives him clout with police, Ram Saran says Singh didn’t give him leave even on the day his six-month-old son died on February 13 due to cold. “Bacche ko jala ke aane ke baad bhi kaam pe gaye (I went to work even that day after cremating my child),” Saran says, adding that he believes only BSP chief Mayawati can help Dalits.
While an FIR has been filed against Satish and six others on Rakesh’s complaint, Abhay Saxena, the SHO of Line Paar Police Station, doubts Dayal’s family’s claim. “You tell me, can anyone set a man on fire like this? Dayal was their employee. They loved him, that is why they took him to hospital. Satish’s arms got burnt as he tried to save Prabhu,” he says, adding, “Prabhu actually committed suicide. He was fed up with life.”
Ranveer Singh, Satish and all the other six are absconding. Their house is locked.
Vinay Kumar, the owner of a glass bangle factory in Firozabad, admits stories of exploitation of workers are not new. However, according to him, it is mostly the contractors who are to blame, and not owners like him.
Hanuman Prasad Garg, president of the UP Glass Industry Syndicate, also blames contractors for the “bonded labour” rampant in the bangle industry. “Poverty is the issue. We are not in direct touch with such workers; we pay mediators and contractors. To earn more, they try to pay minimum wages to the workers.”
Garg adds that the situation is not unique to the bangle industry. “Moneylending exists everywhere in India. What’s new in this? We read about it daily in the papers,” he says.
Dayal’s aunt Darshan Devi has been doing the rounds of police since he was allegedly set on fire. She says he was a kind man, devoted to his family. “His mother died when he was just three months old. His father died when he was 8. He had no siblings, and decided not to marry. He never made us feel he was not our son,” she says.
They have other concerns as well. The National Green Tribunal has been talking about either shifting or shutting down the bangle factories and units as Firozabad falls under the TTZ (Taj Trapezium Zone).
Sheela, a widow and mother of three, who works in a bangle unit in the Line Paar area, says no one is bothered about people like her. “There are schemes for farmers and they get compensation during calamities. The government waives off their loans. No one helps us… as if we are not humans. Labourers are the most vulnerable community and we are ignored,” she says.
Rakesh says Dayal’s death has made him worry for his children. Pointing out the irony of him dying of burns, after a lifetime spent working with fire, he says, “I know we will live and die like this. Par kya hamare bachche bhi aise hi tap-tap ke khatam honge (But will our children too die slogging)?”
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