Hours after revenue officials released him and two dozen other bonded labourers from the custody of a woodcutting unit owner in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district, Kasi was threatened by those who kept him in custody for several years for a loan of Rs 20,000.
“After the rescue in the morning, they (revenue officials) dropped us at home late night. They gave us 10 kg rice, a dhoti and a saree before sending us back home. But last night itself, people close to the owner came and threatened us. We are afraid that they will harm us,” said Kasi, a resident of Periyakarumbur village near Kancheepuram.
The 70-year-old came under the spotlight after newspapers carried a photograph in which he is seen falling at the feet of revenue officials when they reached the woodcutting unit based on a tip-off that several bonded labourers worked there.
Kasi and the other labourers, all of them belonging to the ST Irula community, have not been given release certificates yet. These certificates cancel the “debt” to the employer and make those rescued beneficiaries to central and state schemes and give them an assistance of Rs 20,000 on the day of rescue.
A neighbour of Kasi said, “He (the owner) is not even absconding. He himself came and threatened us last night.”
On Wednesday, revenue officials of Vellore and Kancheepuram districts rescued a total of 42 people from two separate woodcutting units. While majority of them are from Periyakarumbur village, four families had been picked up from Vanthavasi by owner of the woodcutting unit Natarajan and his son-in-law Prashanth.
The rescue operation was conducted in coordination with the International Justice Mission and was based on a tip-off from Released Bonded Labourers Association, a collective of released bonded labourers who are now working for their rights. The 14 people released in Ranipet in Vellore received their release certificates on Wednesday.
“I had been working for Natarajan for over five years for Rs 20,000 I borrowed from him,” said Kasi.
Ayyappan (25) and his wife Ponniammal (20) are Kasi’s neighbours. They married after Ponniammal’s first husband died. “He (Ayyappan) agreed to look after me and my three children. We had been living inside the woodcutting unit. Once in two months, we were allowed to visit our village to meet relatives but had to return in a few hours,” she said.
Ayyappan said he had borrowed Rs 10,000 from Natarajan few years ago for treatment.
“I had to keep working for them. It was like a permanent debt. Even after officials dropped us home late last night, owners came and threatened us. They said they will kill everyone if we don’t return,” he said.
Among those rescued on Wednesday were 10 children, who were forced to work along with their parents to repay their debt.
Kancheepuram sub-collector A Saravanan was not available for comment. Tahsildar Ramani said the sub-collector was the inquiry officer and the release certificates will be issued only after the inquiry is completed. Ramani is one of the officials who rescued the labourers from the woodcutting unit. “The moment we entered the unit, he (Kasi) ran to us and fell at the feet. We told him that he shouldn’t be doing that and we had come to help them,” she said.