Saturday, August 05, 2000

Of human bondage

The release of five Dalit bonded workers from a quarry in Mysore district has raised the question of the effectiveness of the state machinery in preventing atrocities on the weaker sections of society.

RAVI SHARMA in Srirangapatna


LIFE will never be the same again for five Dalit quarry workers and members of 23 families of Kadathanala village near Pandavapura in Karnataka's Mandya district, who lived in fear of the quarry owner and his men. Although unshackled from the 15 kg iron chains that had kept them fettered for two years, the five Dalits are yet to come to terms with their new-found freedom. "I am waiting for the government to provide me a job. The only work I know is to crush stones," says V. Gopal, 25, one of them, who belongs to the Bovi community.

Gopal and the other workers - his father Venkatesh (58), Venkatachala (40), Krishna (38) and Nagaraju (50) - were 'rescued' and 'released' on June 22 by 60-odd activists of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS). They had been subjected to such inhuman treatment (the clamps of the fetters had been welded in place) for allegedly failing to repay a debt they owed their employer.

Chamundeshwari Crusher, the stone quarry in Arakere near Hangarahalli, 35 km from Mysore, where Gopal and the other workers spent almost 10 years crushing stones from dawn to dusk for a remuneration of Rs.55 a tractor load at last count, has been closed down. The licence for the quarry had expired in 1997. Its owner Puttaswamy Gowda, who is a former Janata Dal (Secular) corporator from Mysore, his son Arun Kumar, quarry foreman Muniyappa, and two persons from a welding shop in Mysore, are in judicial cu stody.

While Venkatesh had borrowed Rs.4,250, the others had taken amounts ranging from Rs.500 to Rs.1,000. Their wages were cut to adjust against the loans, but the outstanding sums never diminished. The released workers claimed that the accounts had been fudg ed; for instance, an entry of Rs.500 was altered to Rs.5,000. They alleged that Puttaswamy Gowda used the ruse of 'unpaid' loans to prevent them from leaving the quarry.

According to Venkatesh, all hell broke loose two years ago when he told Muniyappa that since he had repaid the loan he would like to leave the quarry. He was accused of trying to leave without clearing his debt. He alleged that Gowda's goons thrashed him , took him to Mysore and chained him. The price of the chain and the cost of the welding job and also transport were added to his loan amount. Similar treatment was meted out to the other workers. According to them, they were locked in a dingy shed near the quarry by night and let out to work or to walk down to their huts, situated 100 metres away, to eat a meal. They were made to work six days a week, from 7 a.m. until dusk, with the fetters on. They were fined Rs.100 if they turned up for work even a few minutes late. This amount was added to their ever swelling loan. Added to this, if they did not crush the stones to a near-perfect 4 inch x 3 inch size, they would not be paid for any part of the load. This "punishment" was, of course, given to other quarry workers too.

Said Venkatachala about the chaining: "The chains prevented us even from wearing our underpants. We were not allowed to stay with our families. We were subjected to such harassment because we wished to leave the quarry. They were making an example of us. " The workers tried to escape as other quarries paid better wages.

Other workers too were treated mercilessly, and the punishment was always swift. The quarry owner's men would gather information about labourers who ran away and wait for them to appear at any of the 50-odd quarries in the area. They would then be bundle d into a jeep, taken back to the quarry and beaten. Tales of torture of workers after hanging them upside down from trees, humiliation of women workers and clobbering of children found not working have also surfaced. It is alleged that children were made to work the whole day for Rs.15.

Some workers, however, appear to have made good their escape. A group of 30 people from Kollipalya village near Chamarajanagar, near Mysore, met Divisional Commissioner G.K. Lokhare after the news about the chained workers broke, and said that they had e scaped from the same quarry. To substantiate their claim, they produced photographs of them taken with Puttaswamy Gowda during a Dasara festival, and also stamped papers, which they claimed were agreements between them and Puttaswamy Gowda.

Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, who met the Dalits on July 5, ordered an inquiry into the matter by the Divisional Commissioner. Lokhare said that the only crime of the workers appeared to be that they belonged to a socially weak section. He serve d notices on the farmers in the neighbourhood to explain why they did not report the matter to the authorities.

What is shocking, according to local legislator Parvathamma Srikantaiah, is that the workers have no voting rights. (Their forefathers had migrated from Andhra Pradesh in search of work during the construction of the Krishnarajendra Sagar dam.) "As I did not feel the need to go to the quarry for campaigning I was not aware that they had no vote. The KRRS activists knew about it but they did nothing," the legislator said. The KRRS has denied this allegation.

Administration officials in the area who are supposed to safeguard the rights and interests of the workers were equally blind to the goings-on. Their statements were reflective of their action. Said a local official from the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited, which provides power to the quarry: "The quarry was under benami ownership. We were aware of the fact. So what? They paid the prescribed fees, and we provided the connection."

The workers were not allowed to speak to any outsider, not even to the drivers of lorries that came to collect the stones.

One worker said that a group of men punctured the tyres of a lorry when they spotted the driver talking to some workers. The workers allege that as a matter of strategy they would lodge theft cases against the workers in the Arakere police station and la ter Puttaswamy Gowda himself would visit the police station and have them released on bail.

While the fear of retribution prevented the workers from speaking about the atrocities, the question raised is why officials from any of the government departments - Labour, Police, Revenue, Electricity or Mines and Geology - did not realise what was hap pening in the quarry. Equally surprising is the fact that the chained workers were noticed by a KRRS leader only during the recent panchayat elections and that no politician from the area was aware of the Dalits' plight. Lokhare's inquiry would look into this aspect and the question of fixing of responsibility on the officials concerned.

M. Shivanna, the Minister in charge of Mandya district, accused a former Janata(S) legislator of Srirangapatna, Vijayalakshmi Siddegowda, of having been aware of the workers' conditions but having done nothing about it. She has denied this charge. Parvat hamma Srikantaiah's political rivals say that she was told about the existence of bonded workers when she campaigned in the quarry site.

The quarry workers, however, are not sure which woman politician visited the site. But they are certain about the role of the revenue officials. They allege that the personnel manning the police stations in the vicinity were aware of their bondage. Putta swamy Gowda, they allege, is a powerful man. According to them, he even had action taken against a a sub-inspector who intervened on behalf of the workers.

Lokhare admitted that there were lapses on the part of the officials. "I am going to find out to what extent they are responsible."

The government has gone through the right motions - seven officials have been suspended, a compensation of Rs.25,000 for each of the five chained workers has been announced, and 25 houses would be built at Gangam village in Srirangapatna to rehabilitate the affected workers. While some of the workers want the government to allot them agricultural land, others suggest that the government take over the quarry and run it under a cooperative.

Whatever the decision of the State government, the incident has once again proved the ineffectiveness of the various pieces of legislation meant to protect the weaker sections such as the Prevention of Atrocities Act, the Civil Rights Enforcement Act, th e Prohibition of Child Labour Act and the Bonded Labour Act.

Source: Frontline, August 5, 2000

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