Five men from the Gond tribe, who hail from Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, were rescued from a borewell digging unit in Sahakar Nagar on Monday. The men – aged between 18 and 27 – had been trapped in bonded labour, said officials.

The case came to light when the father of one of the labourers alerted the helpline of Jan Sahas, an NGO working on bonded labour and trafficking in Madhya Pradesh. The NGO alerted the district administration of Bengaluru Urban, which rescued the workers on Monday.

International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO here, supported the district administration in the rescue. An FIR was registered against the owner of the company under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 at Kodigehalli police station.

Four of the rescued men were friends who lived in the same village. They got to know of the job through a job contractor. They called up the owner, who allegedly promised to pay them ₹10,000 a month apart and also provide them with boarding and lodging.

They began working at the unit in November 2019 while the fifth youth joined them in June 2020, shortly after lockdown restrictions eased.

However, the labourers said they were neither paid the promised wages, nor given any accommodation and were forced to sleep in a truck. They told the authorities that they were only given ₹200-₹1,000, and that too occasionally. They were given rations and a stove, and asked to cook for themselves.

“They would travel to different sites for work in the same truck along with the borewell digging machine. The labourers complained that they often had to sleep under the truck at night as there was not enough space for all of them,” a statement from IJM said.

The labourers were made to dig borewells in and around Bengaluru. “They said they could only have two meals a day due to scarcity of rations and time to cook,” IJM said.

The company owners allegedly refused to let them return home despite repeated requests, especially during the pandemic. According to the rescued labourers, they were told they could leave only after their replacements arrived.

One of the five labourers rescued, aged 23, has two children back home. “Even if I am close to death, I will not come back. I will work in my fields or find some job in my village. My family has three acres where we grow corn and paddy. I came here because I wanted money to buy a motor for my own borewell and to save some money for my children’s education, but I was cheated. I hope I get the wages for the months that I worked here,” he said.

There have been several cases of Gond tribals being forced into bonded labour in borewell digging units in the city and the State. In February 2019, eight members of the Gond tribe were rescued from bonded labour from a borewell digging unit in Amrutahalli, a neighbourhood that is a stone’s throw away from Sahakar Nagar. Seven Gond tribals from Chhattisgarh were rescued from a borewell digging unit in Belagavi on July 17, 2020.

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