One of my biggest regrets in life is that I was never able to complete my education. I was in Class 5 when I was forced to go work as a bonded labourer in a house where my father was already working. That was 35 years ago. My father, Thimmappa, worked for 45 years as a bonded labourer just to put some food on the table. We belong to a Scheduled Caste community in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, and could barely make ends meet.
My indenture began when my father took a loan of Rs 10,000 so that he could build a house for us. We were unable to pay the loan and so I was also put to work so that we could pay off the debt. By the time I was 14, my annual income was Rs 1,000, which kept getting deducted from the loan. But my father was forced to take another loan when my sister was to be married. This meant that I was forced to give up any dreams I had for my life to continue working as a bonded labourer.
So today, at the age of 49, I still wake up at 5 am, take my employer’s cattle out before cleaning the dung and waste in their shed. I then milk the cows and get them to fodder before taking them to the forest to graze. I also have to work in the fields, tilling the ground, putting fertiliser, and watering the crops.
In the evenings, I have to split the firewood. I am given leftover food, which has often become stale. My annual income is Rs 10,000 because my employer increased my salary by between Rs 300 and 500 a year. With that, I have managed to give my two children more of an education than I got. My son has studied till CLass 12 and my daughter till Class 11.
I still live alone in a small room next to my employer’s house, but I am always scared to sleep there. I often regret how my life turned out and always think back to my childhood when I loved going to school and wanted an education. But life and our economic situation had other plans. So all these years later, I am still a bonded labourer as I have no other options.
The only good thing that has happened is that I met with some activists from Jeevika, an organisation that helps people like me. They educated me about the laws surrounding bonded labour and have promised to help me. I need a release certificate from the government so that I am eligible for rehabilitation benefits.
I am still waiting for them to come. I also want to be a part of the union of bonded labourers and agriculture labourers. Till all that happens, I am trying to survive each day hoping that my life can change overnight.