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Bonded labourers turned brick kiln owners: How a district collector transformed lives

- April 24, 2022

Arun Lakshman/ IANS

The saga of bonded labour and the compounding problems continue in various villages of Tamil Nadu even as the state government is trying its best to catapult the state to the big league of development.

The story of a group of villagers in Tiruvattur district of Tamil Nadu was of agony, pain and poverty and they shrug when the old bonded labour days pass through their minds. They were bonded labourers in brick kilns as well as in tree cutting for several years until they were rescued by social activists and the district administration.

Thanks to the timely help and support by the Tiruvattur district collector, Dr Alby John, ‘Siragugal Bricks’, a brick kiln company in which 300 former bonded labourers are owners was formed in Veeraganallur village, around 80 km from Chennai.

Govindhammal (40)  and her husband  Venkatesh were bonded labourers for ten years in a brick kiln along with the family. They had borrowed 15000 rupees from the owner of a brick kiln who made them work for ten years until they were rescued by Ranipet RDO with the support of NGOs like IJM  Finally she and her family were rescued in 2018. They were excellent brick kiln workers but jobs were rare and most of the time family was in dire straits.

When Dr Alby John joined as District Collector of Tiruvattur he conducted a study on the society and found out that there were people in dire straits who don’t have enough jobs to run their families. On further deep studies of these people, he found that they were good at brick making as well as for tree cutting as some of these bonded labourers had worked as tree cutters.

He tried to do something different and wanted these former bonded labourers who are struggling hard to eke out a living to get a fixed income and at the same time be independent.

The district collector decided to form a brick kiln company with 300 former brick kiln and tree cutting workers as joint owners under the Tamil Nadu Rural livelihood mission.

This led to the formation of ‘Siragugal Bricks’ or Bricks with Wings.

Alby John while speaking to IANS said, “ These people were extremely talented and we thought that we could make use of their expertise and in turn provide them a sustained and regular income and they be independent. The government infused the working capital and they don’t have any financial burdens. They are the owners of this brick kiln and they will now become financially independent and will get a sustained income.”

The Tiruvattur district administration pumped in Rs 5. 83 lakhs to form a Self Help group and identified a 2 acre land for the brick kiln and water requirements to run the brick kiln have also been arranged.

Dr Alby John also said that the bricks made by ‘Siragugal Bricks’ would be bought for constructing homes under the Central government project of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna leading to a sustained income for the company and thereby the 300 people who are the joint owners.

Helen Barnabas, who is with the NGO, International Justice Mission (IJM) who identified the brick kiln workers and tree cutters who were earlier bonded labourers while speaking to IANS said, “ We have identified them and had earlier rescued these people from the clutches of bonded labour. The project funding for the Siragugal Bricks is done through the Tamil Nadu Rural Livelihood Mission and it was only due to the effort of Tiruvattur district collector, Dr Alby John that the project is materialized and people who were deprived of all the basic necessities got wings.”

Govindhammal said, “  I was a bonded labourer for ten years along with my husband Venkatesh and even after coming out of this, I did not have any money to sustain myself and my family. Now I am looking up to life and all thanks to the district collector and Helen Madam who have helped us move forward. In fact, the name of the company is apt, we have got wings and we will now fly.”

Dr Alby John said that of the 300 people,60 are woodcutters whose skill will be used to cut ‘Kattu Karuvalan trees’ which is an invasive species and can be used as fuel in brick kilns.

The 300 people who are the owners of Siragugal Bricks will work in shifts. The district administration is also planning to construct a shed and is waiting for MNREGA funds to support this.

Siragugal Bricks is a classic example of how the will of a government officer at the level of a district collector can change the lives of several people and give them independence and wings. The support extended by IJM and Helen Barnabas and her team was also important for the district collector Dr Alby John to properly identify the beneficiaries and help them with the project.

This project started at the behest of a Government officer can be a game-changer for several other social initiatives to come up in the state of Tamil Nadu in the future and the inspiring story of ‘Siragugal Bricks’ can be emulated in other parts of the country, provided the concerned officials have the will and drive to do it.