We do not know if Anushka* had managed to eat anything at the time of writing this article. A day before, she had told us how she had had food enough to make one last meal, from the available ration in her house. A daily wage labourer who moonlights as a social worker, she recalls how she has not been able to go to work since the day the lockdown began. The last time she earned a penny was more than a month ago.
A couple of months ago, she would never have imagined that a pandemic would change her life to this extent. Except, she is not alone. Several survivors of trafficking abuse and bonded labour. who have since been rehabilitated, are now staring down the deep end of poverty owing to the lockdown.
Two years ago, along with a few other young women in her neighbourhood, Anushka was trafficked and made to work in a brick factory in Odisha as a bonded labourer. "Those were the worst two years of my life. I used to be beaten up, abused and made to work for long hours without any rest. There were a lot of other women too along with me. We spent each passing day and night with fear. The owner often tried to sexually exploit a lot of us," she recalls.
In the grip of fear, she tells us how the factory also employed a lot of young children. "The punishments there were quite hard. I remember how a woman was locked inside a room for days after being beaten up," she says. What came to her rescue was a mobile phone that she always kept hidden. "I called my sister using the phone, and she managed to find me by tracing the location. Thankfully, all went well. My employer and the contractor are now behind bars," she says.
Oncee she returned to normalcy, in Chhattisgarh, she took to social work. She is part of ILFAT – Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, which is run by survivors of human trafficking. She also works as a daily wage labourer and lives with her family which includes her mother, father and brother. At the same time, she also ensures that her neighbours also don't go hungry during this tough time. "It has, however, become quite difficult. We do not know what will happen in the next few days," she says. Anushka also hopes to join college this next year. "I could not do it this yeat. Let's hope that it happens at least next year," she says.
Another member of ILFAT is 28-year-old Khemlal Khaterji. For 10 years, he worked as a bonded manual labourer as a brick factory in a brick factory in Chattisgarh. "My parents worked there and I grew up watching them work. My father fell ill when I was 12 and could not go to work. So, I started working to support my family," he says. All that while little did Khemlal knew that he wasn't paid a penny for the labour that he did. He was also made to work long hours every day. Most days, he only drank water and didn't eat anything. "I only got to know that I was exploited much later. It took me a decade to come out of that place," says Khemlal, who is now an MSW student in Kalinga University, Raipur.
He also worked as a daily wage labourer to fund his studies. However, he now doesn't know if he will be able to pay his tuition fees for the coming year. "I had saved some money to pay my fees. But I haven't been able to go to work since the lockdown. So, I am getting essentials for our family using that money. This will get exhausted quite soon. What will happen to me after that?" he asks poignantly.