Having broken free from the bondage system, Gopi and Sumathy now serve as guiding lights for their community.
The gentle whirring of a tailoring machine fills the air. It emerges from a humble abode nestled within a lively community at Ramapuram in Thiruvallur district.
Here, a woman in her middle years is seated, engrossed in a YouTube tutorial.
With unwavering attention, she follows the instructions, deftly moving her hands and feet in sync to stitch an intricate zari onto a blouse. A sense of satisfaction washes over her face, leading to a smile.
“I wasted a lot of fabric while learning this,” quips Sumathy, a resident of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) colony in Ramapuram. “Soon, I’ll master stitching chudidars,” she tells South First.
For the past few years, Sumathy has been helping those in her community by stitching school uniforms and other garments.
Meanwhile, her husband Gopi, employed at a rice mill, has been instrumental in overseeing the installation of solar panels in the community. This initiative has brought electricity to more than 33 families in their colony.
Now, the couple stands in prayer at a temple in Melmaruvathur. However, their prayers are not for material wealth; rather, they seek strength — to continue aiding others to the fullest extent of their abilities.
Gopi and Sumathy were once bonded labourers, rescued after enduring five gruelling years in a tree-cutting unit.
It wasn’t until 2020 that they were liberated, thanks to the intervention of the district administration and the Tamil Nadu government.
Today, they aspire to support individuals, ensuring they can access their fundamental human rights with dignity and respect.
Bonded labour, identified as a modern form of slavery, was outlawed in India back in 1976 with the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act. Almost five decades since its prohibition, this issue persists as a significant challenge.
In 2016, the Union government announced its commitment to release and rehabilitate 1.84 crore bonded labourers throughout the nation by 2030.
As per the 41st report of the Lok Sabha’s Standing Committee on Labour, Textiles, and Skill Development, 65,573 individuals subjected to bonded labour have been identified and freed in Tamil Nadu since 1978.
Nonetheless, there are still many individuals trapped within the bondage system, highlighting an ongoing concern that demands attention and resolution.
“I’m aware that there are many others like us, still ensnared in this system. Our objective is to raise awareness and ensure they break free, empowering them to understand and claim their fundamental human rights,” Sumathy shares earnestly.
For Sumathy, the eldest daughter in her family, the concept of taking loans was unfamiliar. “My father, despite working daily wages, never resorted to loans. But things changed after my marriage. Due to a family dispute with my in-laws, my husband and I chose to move out,” she begins, recounting the genesis of their plight.
Gopi and Sumathy aspired to purchase land, construct their own house, and settle there. “That was our dream,” she says.
Their path led them to a middleman, who offered them work at a tree-cutting unit. “We were promised ₹1,300 for each tonne of wood, along with an advance of ₹20,000. They assured us a stable livelihood and a place to live,” she reveals.
Hoping hard work would swiftly help realise their dreams, the couple joined the unit. However, upon arrival and a few days of labour, they realised they were trapped.
They were instructed to set up their tents in a remote area where there was no electricity. They had to rely on torches for illumination.
Sumathi vividly remembers living in constant fear due to the presence of reptiles and insects swarming around their makeshift dwelling.
“We were barred from leaving the unit, even for essentials. Only men were allowed to go outside. The promised pay per tonne of ₹1,300 was unilaterally reduced to ₹1,000 without explanation. When we questioned this, we faced threats,” she shares.
Forced labour became their grim reality, compelling the couple to remain trapped with no means to return home.
Throughout their tenure at the tree-cutting unit, enduring relentless rain and scorching sun was exceedingly challenging.
“The absence of proper shelters made it nearly impossible to seek refuge during extreme weather conditions. The working conditions were exploitative; we were given wooden axes that caused physical agony, and we were subjected to both physical and verbal abuse,” says Gopi.
There were also instances of wage discrepancies involving falsified accounts during the wood-loading process.
“Women were harassed and belittled. The owner even attempted to sexually harass me and spoke to me in a derogatory manner. When my husband intervened, he was assaulted. Fearing for our safety, we went into hiding. But were soon caught,” she recounts.
The duo was singled out by the middleman and owner, primarily because they belonged to the Irula community.
“We were unfairly accused solely because of our community background, and there were occasions when the owner degraded us by referring to us as ‘Irula dogs’,” Gopi recalls.
As they resigned themselves to their circumstances and continued working, this time in Koduvalli village, they encountered someone with whom they could share their concerns.
“They pledged to assist us in escaping,” Sumathy shares.
Before long, government officials and the police arrived at the unit.
“I didn’t shed a tear. Despite enduring severe abuse by the owner of the tree unit, I felt not sadness but determination to bring him to justice. So, I didn’t cry. I ensured I bolstered the confidence of my husband and friends in the unit to speak out against him. We hadn’t done anything wrong. Why should I be afraid?” she asserts.
Gopi, however, remained fearful. After years of abuse, sometimes even physical assault, he was apprehensive about confronting the situation. Nevertheless, Sumathy stood as his pillar of strength.
“I opposed granting bail to the owner. Even after the court case, the opposition tried to intimidate and gaslight us, attempting to make us believe they hadn’t caused us any harm. However, we stood our ground,” shares Sumathy.
Their lives have undergone a tremendous improvement since.
“We now have access to our fundamental human rights — the freedom to move around, visit relatives’ homes, and participate in events,” Sumathy says joyously.
Gopi is employed at a rice mill. Sumathy participates in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provides 100 days of employment in a financial year for rural households involved in unskilled manual labour.
The duo also serves as leaders in the Released Bonded Labour Association (RBLA).
Within the RBLA leadership role, Gopi has successfully obtained Community Certificates for eight individuals and land documents for four families.
Living in their ST colony, these families lacked basic amenities like electricity. Gopi collaborated with local leaders and an NGO to facilitate the installation of solar panels, providing electricity to families.
Their experiences have shaped their commitment to advocating for human rights and community development.
“Post-rescue, we firmly believe that no one, from our community or any other, should endure the suffering we faced in bondage,” shares Gopi.
Despite the adversities, government interventions providing entitlements have inspired them to lead positive change in their community. “We also find it heartening that our local leaders show us respect and consider our opinions in decision-making,” says Sumathy.
Looking ahead, the couple’s vision for the community involves securing land pattas and housing for a minimum of three villages.
“Personally, I aim to pursue a career as a driver, handling both cars and buses. Despite discouragement from the owner, I acquired a license and proved my capability. My ongoing goal is to advocate for the rights of our community,” shares Gopi.
Sumathy finds comfort in engaging with children in the neighbourhood and has cultivated a keen interest in tailoring. Additionally, she takes it upon herself to ensure these children receive access to education.
“I aspire to create a small enterprise for women centred around basket-making, aiming to establish a self-sustaining model. Currently, our house is quite basic. It’s hard to endure certain weather conditions. If structural improvements can be made, it could potentially serve as the space for the unit. With the government’s support, this endeavour will become feasible,” she adds.
On Human Rights Day, the couple has a message: “Everyone possesses dreams and ambitions. Empowering those in unfortunate circumstances is crucial. It’s our joint responsibility to work towards liberating them from such situations and nurturing an equitable society.”