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Breaking their chains: How a family escaped bonded labour in a granite quarry in rural Karnataka
An industry that produces astonishing wealth in India faces accusations of caste violence and modern slavery
In a small, hard-to-access yellow house in Karnataka, lives a woman in hiding with her spouse, daughter, son, and goats. They are safeguarding their lives, while fighting a lengthy court case against the owner of a granite mine in Karnataka’s Mandya district. The soft-spoken mother-daughter duo, Tara* and Pooja*, have charged their boss with using bonded labour, and committing caste atrocities and sexual crimes against them. The women, Tara’s husband, Santhosh*, and son, Kumar*, now live and work in other districts so they don’t encounter the accused, Madhu Nagaraju.
Karnataka is a prosperous state in South India, with the state’s GDP standing at $247.3 billion in 2020-21. It is home to Bengaluru, hailed as ‘India’s Silicon Valley’. But technology is not Karnataka’s only export. The state has rich mineral ores: iron, manganese, copper, lead, zircon, even gold. In the pre-Cambric period, the subcontinent had widespread volcanic activity. Over time, this magma cooled and eroded, leaving behind the ancient rocks and minerals mined and exploited today.
The iron ore mines in Ballari, which made a billionaire out of the infamous politician Gali Janardhan Reddy, have now been closed by a Supreme court order, leaving an entire district in economic slowdown because of the lack of jobs.
In the popular imagination, the Kolar gold fields, discovered and greatly exploited by British colonialists, inspired the wildly successful Kannada movie ‘KGF: Chapter 1’, a crime thriller set in and around the now-defunct Kolar Gold Mines. The British built the first railway line from here to the coast, shipping tons of this gold back to the UK.
‘Cyanide hills’, a dumping ground of cyanide forty metres high, lie above-ground from the processing of the gold ore. This toxic hill is now a minor attraction for the locals as the movie was shot there, 100 kilometres to the east of Bengaluru. The movie KGF was such a huge hit that it was dubbed in other Indian languages, raking in INR 2500,000,000 (approx. 30 million euros).
Workers mine granite, owners mine profits
Karnataka has a huge export business from its granite mines industry. One gets different hues of granite here: Cat’s Eye, Imperial Red, Hassan Green, White, Steel Grey, and the much-demanded Absolute Black granite.
Traditionally, the cutting of stone and granite mining in South India has been done by the people of the Bovi (stone-cutter) community. Bovi, also known as Waddaru, come under the constitutionally protected Scheduled Castes of India. However, these people have not been adequately protected by the state.
As the granite mining is their traditional work and income source, the government could have given them formal community control over the exploitation of the highly valued stone. The granite in the state is a commons, and should be owned by the people. Instead these mines are given out on a contract basis to private ‘owners’, who then hire people to work under them, often with measly pay.
A pattern, not an incident
In Karnataka’s granite mines, this labour often takes the form of bonded labour: a form of labour that is modern-day slavery. In August 2000, a shocking case of bonded labour came out in a granite mine in Srirangapatna, where some Bovi-community people were shackled to the granite quarry with iron chains, according to a Frontline report.
Srirangapatna is only one hundred kilometres south-west of the state capital Bengaluru. The labourers from the Bovi community were shackled in such a way that they couldn’t move around or even put on underpants, and cut stones all day long, all in the name of clearing off their debts, which included the cost of the iron shackles.
The case shocked civil society at the time, and the Chief Minister visited the place, making a cash reimbursement to the affected bonded labourers. They were freed.
The debt that can never be repaid
A similar incident took place in Mandya’s Nagamangala taluk. This story was discovered in August 2021, exactly twenty-one years later. Santhosh or rather, Santhosh’s father, had allegedly taken a loan of INR 50,000 (about Є600). After the grandfather passed away, now the entire family of four (Santhosh, his wife, Tara, his son, Kumar, and his daughter, Pooja) were made to work to repay it for the past twenty years. If he or his family expressed interest in moving away from the quarry, they were threatened, saying the loan was yet to be paid off, and beaten badly.
Though there haven’t been any physical shackles, the coercion was economic and psychological in nature. Their movements were followed, and they felt trapped and helpless.
Santhosh and Tara had to cut stones all day, according to what they understood as their caste-dharma, or life’s duty. They underwent severe beatings, and verbal abuse, including caste slurs. They were singled out and called Waddaru, or Waddaru-munde in a derogatory manner: the name of their lower-caste community. If Santhosh made any move to raise his voice or ask questions, he was beaten, or Madhu would take out his wrath on Santhosh’s wife.
Tara* is a woman in her thirties, with striking looks, like she would be working in films, if she had the right connections. But she speaks in a halting, heartbroken voice about the horrors she’s been through.
The ‘owner’, who’s their handler and boss, raped her multiple times. He threatened her saying if she told anyone, the videos of the act would be circulated, according to her statement. Despite her allegations, the police have not recovered the accused’s mobile phones to recover this footage. Tara says Madhu’s other associates also raped her.
Her husband was beaten and subjugated. The sexual crimes would take place in the granite mines while the others were working, Tara alleges. “He would call me, and I would have to go with him. If I did not, he would throw the sharpest stones at me,” she says, pointing to the scars on her arms.
Her daughter, Pooja*, studies in class ten, and is aged 15. When we went to speak to her, in August 2021, she was preparing for her board examinations. “In the morning, I was expected to go to their house and wash the plates, clean their floors and then go to school every day. In the evening, I was supposed to go to his house and massage his legs.” In her complaint to the police, Pooja* has alleged that Madhu touched her inappropriately, on her chest and waist. As a result of these allegations, he has been booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, 2012 (POCSO).
None of them could bring themselves to tell anyone what was happening, until they met social workers by chance. It took the activists a long time to draw the women out, have them tell the story, and convince them to file a complaint against the abuser. Tara and Santhosh are unlettered, and when they went to the police, their daughter wrote the complaint in her child’s handwriting.
After the complaint, the police took no action. They did not investigate, and social workers visited the police station several times to no avail. The accused, Madhu, according to the social workers, got arrested against great odds. “We were shocked when he got arrested. He was put in judicial custody only because a local TV channel, Speed News, picked up the story.”
One of the most dominant castes in Karnataka are the Gowdas. The Gowdas in Mandya are locally infamous, as they hold sway over the entire district, be it land, irrigation, political power, government jobs, or business interests. Even the former Prime Minister, the only one elected from South India – H.D. Devegowda – comes from this community. They control the majority of the resources and have a tendency to look out for one another.
Punished for speaking out
The social workers said that Madhu has close ties with Suresh Gowda, the Member of Legislative Assembly in Mandya’s Nagamangala. The local police are also regularly bribed by him, they allege.
Madhu was released. His supporters and others who worked for him celebrated his freedom. They cut a cake and burst firecrackers. Soon after, Madhu started terrorizing the people who had filed cases against him.
Tara says, “Two days after he was released, his workers came to our house late at night, shouting and screaming for us to open the door, threatening us. They asked us how we had dared to file a case against Madhu. They demanded we withdraw the case. When we refused to open the door, they broke open the windows and threw lit crackers inside,” she says, showing us pictures they took the day after the incident, with red paper remnants of the ‘bijili’ crackers. These small, red, chilli-sized crackers are tied together, and pack a loud, terrifying punch. The experience shook the family so much they decided to stay separately, far away from where Madhu could find them.
Why didn’t government authorities intervene?
When alerted to a possible case of bonded labour, the district revenue department interviewed the family and the other labourers. In their report, they cite the interviews of the victims to conclude there was no bonded labour because the victims were living in a hut that belonged to them and not to Madhu. The report also mentioned that since the workers were coming and going to the quarry on their own, it did not constitute bonded labour. They held a farcical investigation, the social workers allege, while bowing down to political pressures to absolve Madhu of any charges.
The report ignores the economic and psychological bondage the family was placed under. Social workers point out the facts: the quarry owner gave them an advance, and did not let them go for generations.
If there was a family emergency and the family had to travel to see their relatives, one family member, the girl or her mother, had to be left behind to ensure they came back for her. They were given barely enough money for survival. These circumstances indicate that the family was indeed in a state of bonded labour, but denied their constitutional protection in the form of implementation of The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976).
The revenue officials also overlooked that the quarry is being operated without any license. According to the revenue files, the quarry is a wasteland which belongs to the government (Sarkari gomala [a government meadow, an uncultivable wasteland], survey number 34, Nagamangala taluk [sub-district]). However, quarrying is still taking place since Madhu holds a license to another granite mine in a different location (survey number 72).
The paid-off revenue and police officials ignored his exploiting the quarry, which belongs to the government, social workers allege. In fact, Madhu has managed to get the police to register a false ‘counter-case’ against the family, alleging that Tara abused, beat up and stole things from other workers. Incidents of the use of this tactic—lodging false ‘counter-cases’ against victims— is used by dominant caste people with money and muscle power to tie up their victims in expensive legal proceedings. They use this counter-case as a bargaining chip to force them into withdrawing the cases against themselves. Both the cases are now in court.
Unbias the News attempted to speak to district government officials about the case. The Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mandya district, said that the investigation was pending based on a legal opinion from the Additional Commissioner from the Revenue department, as this case would come under the Bonded Labour Act. However, this team of journalists was not able to reach the officials. Numerous phone calls went unanswered. Upon going to the district office, the journalists waited for hours but still could not meet the revenue official. The reporters also called him on the phone several times but the calls were not received.
For systemic change, workers must become owners
The family is now in a better place, away from the owner. Santhosh works as a mason and his son, Kumar, sells fruit. Pooja looks forward to finishing her schooling and working in less arduous conditions, and would love to work in an office. Tara eagerly looks forward to justice while the case runs its course in the Indian courts.
Even twenty-one years after the shackling incident, the people from the Bovi community don’t have a proper solution to this tendency of their labour to be exploited as bonded labour. The government has failed to form an alternative, such as a development board for the community, which activists have been suggesting.
These people provide a high value service and contribute to an important building resource for the world. They deserve much better.
The social workers who have been working on the issue believe that one possible solution is giving the community a cooperative control over the granite mines. The current government system of giving control to private players encourages this form of caste-labour exploitation: it introduces a middleman and ignores the historical caste-related stone cutter occupation of the Bovi community. Since it is a trade known to them, they should have total control over this production and benefit from it through a cooperative.
*All asterisked names have been changed.
*The names of the social workers working on this case have intentionally been left out at their request.
*Specific locations have been intentionally left out of the story in order to protect the survivors.
The organisation working on this case is the Mukti, an alliance of 60 NGOs in Karnataka to combat bonded labour in the state. This case is specifically supported by Maarga society. They are helping the family with the legal proceedings, and are looking for funds to fight this case. You can help out by visiting maarga.org.in/supportus or get in touch by email: email@example.com.
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