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Unstoppable: Two workers risking lives to fight bonded labour in Sindh

Published Oct 26, 2014 04:00pm
Possessed of a ready, raucous laugh, but unable to write more than her name, Kohli was born into 'bonded labourer'. — Reuters photo
Possessed of a ready, raucous laugh, but unable to write more than her name, Kohli was born into 'bonded labourer'. — Reuters photo

A former bonded labourer and a doctor. A Hindu woman and a Muslim man with the same vision and determination; when they get together, you feel that anything is possible in Pakistan.

I first met them last year while filming a television series in Karachi. The doctor was soft spoken and careful with his words, the labourer was loud and forceful. They both live and work in interior Sindh. They have both been threatened with force, one of them has been beaten numerous times and the other has never given in to pressure or bribes.

Together, they want to change the lives of thousands of peasants that live and work the land in Sindh.

Also read: Call for law to rid eight million people of bonded labour

Dr Ghulam Haider works to free bonded labourers. One day, he was working in his office when a group of men walked in. They beat him up and put a gun to his head and asked him to recite the Kalma so that they could shoot him.

“I am a different kind of person, I am not afraid of this; I will not recite the Kalma in front of you. If you have to kill me, go ahead and kill me,” he told the men.

Rattled by his response, they left his office.

Dr Haider works with the Green Rural Development Organisation that set up a colony called Azad Nagar in 2006. It was set up so that bonded labourers who had been freed could be rehabilitated and could start a new life for themselves.

The village, close to the city of Hyderabad, is situated on 11 acres of land. It has electricity and people have access to television and other amenities. Everyone who lives there has a horror story to tell about their previous lives in which they were beaten, raped and often made to go hungry. But once they arrived at this safe haven, their tears made way for laughter.

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A figure that is often seen in Azad Nagar is Veeru Kohli. She was born into bonded labour and saw firsthand how the landlords treated the peasants on the farms. Once she was married and had children things became even more difficult.

“My husband, my children and I were kept separate from each other,” she tells us. “My daughter was dying of starvation because the landlord whose field I was working on was not paying me anything. When I confronted them, they beat me up.”

But she refused to stay quiet. “I would tell the landlord: 'You’re already getting work out of us for free, the least you can do is not hit us.'

“One night we were celebrating the wedding of another girl but the landlord came and started hitting me and asked why we were getting her married without asking him. I told him that she is our girl and it has nothing to do with him,” she recalled.

“But I thought to myself: today he thinks he owns this girl, tomorrow he will think he owns me. I had to do something.”

Veeru escaped with her family and after months of fighting for her family and begging the police to protect them, she finally found refuge in a camp inhabited by other former bonded labourers. It was then that she decided to dedicate her life to freeing others like her.

Veeru met Dr Haider shortly after being freed and they began working together.

 Veeru Kohli speaks to a supporter on the campaign trail. — Reuters photo
Veeru Kohli speaks to a supporter on the campaign trail. — Reuters photo

Theirs is a life of peril; when the doctor wanted to set up a school for the children of those who worked on the farms, he was offered large sums of money not to. “Many of the landlords don’t want to educate them because they fear that then they will know their rights,” he says.

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In the last elections, Veeru decided that she would stand for a provincial assembly seat.

“When I ran for election, many landlords threatened to kill me because in the past votes had only been cast for them,” she says. “They even offered to give me large sums of money in the hope that I would decide not to run for elections.”

 Chanting slogans during the election campaign. When Kohli launched her shot at office, she said: "We will continue our struggle until the last bonded labourer is freed." — Reuters photo
Chanting slogans during the election campaign. When Kohli launched her shot at office, she said: "We will continue our struggle until the last bonded labourer is freed." — Reuters photo

In all the provinces of Pakistan, in villages and towns and small cities alike, a quiet revolution of sorts is underway. People like Dr Haider and Veeru are emerging, stubborn and determined to positively impact their communities. Bullets and bullies don’t scare thesm; their mission and calling is far too important to compromise.

To me, they are a shining example of what the human spirit is capable of when it collaborates; when it looks beyond, religion, caste and creed.

To watch their stories log on to: http://www.aaj.tv/aes/labour.html

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 26th, 2014