Saturday, July 21, 2007

A day when I was almost attacked...

It was just any other day (or so I thought) till I got a call informing me about a raid by the labour department. The raid was on a brick kiln unit wherein the owner was practising bonded labour. It's an amazing story. It took a man from Orissa to point out the instance of bonded labour in Bangalore while the Bangalore city cops had no clue about the going ons in their own backyard. Bijaya kumar Babu, a social worker from Orissa tipped off the labour commission in the city about the practice of bonded labour at SRB Chamber Bricks, a brick kiln unit in a village in Anekal, 30 kilometres from Bangalore. One of the members took a chance escaped leaving behind his wife in the brick kiln unit. Once back home, he contacted Das who works with the tribal and Dalit community in Orissa.

He then got in touch with South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM) and informed them about the situation here. The people trapped in the brick kiln unit were mainly Dalits and tribals who had come all the way to Bangalore in search of employment. He also told me that National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is in shambles in the state which is prompting lot of people from Orissa to come all the way to Bangalore. One of the main reasons that Bangalore lures people is the construction boom here. There are apartments being constructed left, right and centre here. Now that the city's become greater Bangalore, the constructions will only increase. (Trivia: Greater Mumbai is 434 sq. km whereas Greater Bangalore is 721 km. Greater Bangalore is almost double than that of Mumbai.) Another reason why they are in demand is because migrant workers don't demand as much money as the local employees.

I took my camera and went to the spot along with officials from labour department, revenue department and a bunch of human rights activists from SICHREM and Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA). I had never been to an actual raid before. So it was quite exciting :D

Most of the people were from various villages of Bolangir district in Orissa. Their condition out there was very bad. We heard some horror stories. No one was allowed to go home with their family. Mamta, a worker said, "I was beaten up black and blue when my husband tried to ask for higher wages. I was not allowed to breast feed my kids for three weeks. They beat up my husband too. I desperately want to go home. I asked them for a leave. But they did not grant me one." There were cases of child labour too. N B Ramchandra, labour officer-Bangalore said, "The children ought to be subjected to medical examination by a doctor to determine their exact age. After that, can we give the exact statistics of the number of children involved in child labour." The workers alleged that they were paid Rs 400-500 per week per family.

When the team went to the spot, they were very happy. They were expecting us since Bijaya had gone to the place in disguise couple of days before informing them about the raid. Overjoyed, they immediately started packing their bags. However, some associates of Nanjundaiah began physically abusing the labourers and the activists despite the presence of labour officials and the police personnel. They also prevented the government officials to take the labourers along with them. Bijaya was slapped real hard by the goons. We couldn't do anything because there were just two police officials with us who did nothing. When I spoke to the Anekal police, they told me that the labour department officials had only asked for two people and that they provided the people likewise. They also said it is difficult to handle such last minute requests. The human rights activists told me that during such kind of raids, the police is always informed in the last minute because word usually spreads fast and the owners of such kind of places always manage to escape.

The labour department had hired a truck to ferry the people. However, as soon as the labourers boarded the truck the goons forcibly tried to pull them out of the truck. Mind you, the goons who were being violent were only 3-4 of them. In comparison the workers were about 50 of them. But they were so scared. Mentally they had surrendered. To see them so meek somehow disturbed me. They could have easily over powered the men since they were so few in number. The owner had still not reached the spot and his men were simply creating ruckus. It was such a helpless feeling. Despite crying for help, we couldn't do anything. I couldn't spot the police officials at all.

The goons also thrashed the ETV cameraman. His camera was broken as they demanded the cassette from him. However, he was smart and in the nick of time managed to replace the original cassette with an empty one. Looking at the situation, the media persons decided to quickly leave the place. I had to leave early since I had a deadline to meet. One of my friends from Hindu who had come in a car offered me a lift. As soon as we sat in the car we saw that the owner had come. We again rushed out in order to get his version. I spoke to him and clicked his picture. Within few minutes went back to the car and were all set to leave. Suddenly, 5-6 goons rounded up the car and the driver had to stop it. They began banging the car furiously. Me and my friend looked at each other. We were really scared now. We had not exactly locked the doors. They opened it and demanded the camera. "Who has the camera? Delete our boss's photo. Tell us where the camera is?" they shouted. I was really scared now. I was the one with the camera. In the whole melee, they were confused about who exactly took the camera. I was confused. I did not want to part away with my camera and pictures. Well, why should I? But at the same time, I wondered, they only want me to delete the picture na. I should simply delete it and go away from the wretched place. In the midst of all the nonsense, I was wondering what exactly to do.

My friend did not have the camera with her. She screamed at them saying that she doesn't have it. We were seated inside. But they started searching the car. They even tried to open my friend's bag. Meanwhile, I started crying for help. I also told them that I don't have the camera. The Hindu photographer was waiting for us in another place. Anticipating trouble, he had smartly left the place. However, his tripod was still inside the bag. They took away the tripod. I couldn't believe my helplessness. I yelled at them and screamed for help. I was really angry and scared. Suddenly the owner came and snatched the tripod from his goons and gave it to us. He asked his goons to shut up and apologised to us and requested us to leave. We were both very angry with him and shouted at him and finally left the place. Mind you, the police out there did not come to help us at all.

As we were going back to the office, I realised the enormity of the situation. I have never been rounded up by violent goons like this. It was only later that the gravity of the situation hit me. It can be extremely intimidating. I have been in similar situations before/ (Looking back at the post, I realise some of my opinions have changed. It's weird. But well, that's a different story altogether. Will blog about it.) However, I think I am lightly lucky in such cases because I'm a woman. Had there been a male reporter in my place, he would have been bashed left right and centre in no time. They wouldn't have asked. They would have simply beaten the guy black and blue.

I went to the office and filed the story. According to my boss, I shouldn't have taken the risk and should have simply deleted the pic. She's asked me not to get into trouble like this. Hmmm.... But I'm secretly glad that I did not give the camera to them. I think I can ramble all about it now especially since I am safe now. But still, why should I? Argh!!!!!! Oh, I did not file a police complaint. I think I should have. But well, at that time, all that was in my mind was to go and file the story. Later I kind of lost interest. I think I should have filed a complaint. But well.... that did not happen.

The activists who were there for a longer time told me that they had a tough time leaving the place along with the workers. More police officials were sent in later. The workers are now back home :)

9 comments:

Manan said...

It's heartening to see people like you risk so much in pursuit of truth and ultimately improving the lot of people.

Being in a totally different field, I cannot even say if I would have it in me to do such things - admire you for it.

Stay safe.

kpowerinfinity said...

Oh, this seems straight out of a movie! I am glad you are safe .. the way you described it, it sounded really really bad..

What happened to the people there? Did the owner of the place get punished?

I must say, I salute your courage. As manan says: Stay safe!

Unjun said...

it's exciting, yet scary. we need tremendous presence of mind to be able to make decisions and act in the nick of time when under tremendous pressure.

of course, it never comes to us at one go. that is the tricky bit :)

Nishant Ratnakar said...

Fuck...... when did the story come out?

manuscrypts said...

brickbats, almost literally... but awesome, woman !! :)

Incognito said...

geez!

Divya said...

gosh shobha! wot an adventure! umm... rather childish... but i am secretly a little envious... am doing such a 'safe' job even tho i am a journo! :(

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Khamakha said...

awesome shobha...had goosebumps while reading this post...
wil u plz keep a copy of this article done by ma brave friend :)
-sonali