I will not work for any company, big or small

Until recently, 14-year-old Daham was just another child carpet weaver. When he left his Bihar village to find work in UP's Mirzapur district, he hoped he could get some odhna kapda (clothes and winterwear) for himself and help make life a little easier for his family back home. He could do neither.

By Uday Shankar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

BASUDEO ORAON had lost all hopes of ever retrieving his young son Daham from the bondage of Jagdish Kushwaha, a carpet loom owner of Lohara village in UP's Mirzapur district. Daham had been working for the last two years for Kushwaha and Basudeo's efforts to secure either his son's release or to get him regular wages resulted in a humiliating thrashing for father and son.

When Daham's grandmother died, Basudeo walked all the way from his village in South Bihar to Lohara and asked Kushwaha for some money to perform the last rites. Kushwaha refused saying he had already paid Rs 500 to the middleman who had brought Daham and had been spending Rs 150 a month since feeding Daham. Kushwaha said Daham would be allowed to return to his village only when he had paid his debts to Kushwaha. He threw Basudeo out who took another four days to walk back to his village.

Basudeo then approached his MLA, who gave him some money and a letter to Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of the Delhi-based South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude. On July 30, Basudeo met Satyarthi in a desperate bid to rescue his son from Kushwaha's clutches.

Satyarthi went to Mirzapur and met the district authorities along with Rama Shankar Chaurasia, president of the local unit of Bandhua Mukti Morcha. Recalled Chaurasia, "The district magistrate of Mirzapur, Viresh Kumar Singh, was very cooperative.

He instructed the sub-divisional magistrate, Sankata Prasad Tewari, to secure Daham's release from Jagdish Kushwaha under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act of 1976."

District officials raided Kushwaha's premises on July 31, arrested Kushwaha and they free four children being held there in bondage. Daham was one of them. Before leaving for his village, Daham spoke to Down To Earth.

What does your father do for a living?
My father has three bighas of land which he cultivates. Mother and I used to help him out. My two younger brothers and two sisters sometimes go to school and sometimes play.

Did you get enough to eat at home? What did you normally eat?
We ate rice, dal and vegetables. Sometimes we did not get rice to eat. Then we managed somehow. We found something or the other to eat.

How and when did you go to work for Jagdish Kushwaha?
About two years ago a man named Vishwanath from my village asked me and my father whether I would like to work in a carpet factory in Mirzapur. Vishwanath claimed that he knew some of the factory owners and he could put in a word for me. He promised that I would have to work for only two or three hours a day and the money would be good and I would be able to send Rs 500 home every month.

Did you know Vishwanath earlier? What does he do?
Yes, we know him. He is a chamar (cobbler caste) from the village. I do not know what he does, but he leads a good life. I also know that he was responsible for getting jobs for many people in our area.

Why did you agree to go?
Vishwanath said I could get much better odhna kapda, that my family would not have to suffer for lack of warm clothes in the winter and the money that I earned would see my family through when we ran out of grain.

What happened when Vishwanath took you to Kushwaha?
Jagdish gave him Rs 500 for each of the 25 children that he had brought along from my village and some of the adjoining villages. Jagdish told us that Vishwanath would hand over the money to our fathers. Vishwanath left saying he would be back with news from home after the marriage season was over. But he never showed up after that.

What were you doing at Jagdish's loom?
Jagdish makes and supplies carpets for the Rajput Carpet Co in Mirzapur. He employs many people to weave carpets. I was one of those working on the looms. The work would start at 6 am and we used to work till 6 pm. In between we got one hour to cook and eat our food. For the rest of the day, we would tie lakhs of knots in threads according to the design supplied to us. It is a strenuous job as the knots have to be woven very close and tight and have to meet the design -- one wrong knot and the whole effort would be in vain. Often our fingers got cut but even that would not mean a break from the routine. Most of the time, we forced our injured fingers to deliver the carpet on schedule. If the delivery could not be made, Jagdish would give us hell and we would have to finish the job by working into the night.

What were you getting in return?
I along with Sagan, Sambhu and and Vinod (all released with Daham from bondage) got half a kilo of rice per meal. In addition we got 250 gm of onions, a little oil and salt and some spices at times -- no dal, no vegetables. We had no holidays. Even on festival days we had to work, but never got extra ration.

Did you get any salary?
No. Whenever we asked for money or our fathers came for money, Jagdish would say that we did not do any work and he was spending Rs 150 per month on our meals. He also insisted that because he had given Rs 500 as advance to Vishwanath, to be given to our fathers, we had to first repay all of it before he could give us either leave or money.

Was no one being paid at Kushwaha's loom?
He had employed many people from his village. They were paid regularly on the basis of carpets woven. But the 25 of us whom Vishwanath had brought were not getting any money.

What happened to the others who had come with you?
Except the four of us, others left when either they were to get married or if there was a marriage in the family. We were not allowed to leave because no such occasion occurred for us.

Did you try to get out?
It was difficult to get out as we were never left alone. Either Jagdish or his brothers always shadowed us. At first we were never allowed to go out. There was a well nearby where we bathed. Otherwise, if we had to go out because it was absolutely necessary, Jagdish or one of his three brothers would accompany us. Still, I tried to escape twice but was caught on both occasions. Once I was caught near Ahraura (close to Lohara village) by Jagdish and the next time I took Rs 30 from a man from Lohara who worked there. I escaped early in the morning. I reached Ahraura and boarded a bus from there. But Jagdish chased me in a Maruti (which belonged to the Rajput Carpet Co), stopped the bus at Duddhi (about 75 km from Lohara) and brought me back. Then I was beaten up severely. I was not given any food for a few days. When I started working, then Jagdish began to give me rice.

What happened if you did not work or fell ill?
How could we not work? If we stopped working , we would not get any food. Even if we fell ill, we still had to work. But if someone was taken ill seriously, Jagdish would call a doctor to give us medicine.

Why didn't your father try to contact Vishwanath in the village either to get money or to get you back?
He tried several times. Everytime he went to Vishwanath, he would write a letter to Jagdish. Jagdish simply tore the letter into pieces and abused my father for bothering him. And what could he do to Vishwanath? He is a big man. Supposing my father picked up a fight with him, he could create problems for us.

What problems?
I do not know. But that is what my father said, that it is difficult to do anything to Vishwanath.

Now that you are free, what would you do?
I'll go home and these people (Satyarthi) have promised to get us money and land. If I get it, it will be very good. I also want to go to school, but I do not know. I'll ask my father.

Will you work in any other company if they paid you?
Four years ago, I worked for a big company and they used to give me Rs 400 a month. It was a very big company so they paid. But Vishwanath told us that big companies pay less and lured us to work for a small company. But now I have decided I will just not work for any company, big or small.

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