IJM Chennai: Former Slave Wins Local Government Election

Kutty and his family, proudly displaying official documents certifying him as a local government official
Kutty and his family, proudly displaying official documents certifying him as a local government official
Three years after he was rescued from slavery in a rice mill in an IJM-assisted operation, Kutty was elected as a local government leader in a landslide victory.
Three years after he was rescued from slavery in a rice mill in an IJM-assisted operation, Kutty was elected as a local government leader in a landslide victory.
Kutty when he was still a slave in the rice mill
Kutty when he was still a slave in the rice mill
In the rice mill, the slaves were forced to live in tiny, cement buildings. They were not allowed to leave without the owner's explicit permission, even to go to the hospital.
In the rice mill, the slaves were forced to live in tiny, cement buildings. They were not allowed to leave without the owner's explicit permission, even to go to the hospital.

CHENNAI, INDIA – Three years ago, Kutty was a slave. Today, he is an elected government official, empowered to lead his community.

Trapped in Slavery

Kutty and his family once lived and worked as slaves in a rice mill, their entire lives controlled by the abusive owner. Instead of going to school, Kutty's four children, aged 5 to 13, were put to work in the rice mill. They could not leave without the owner's explicit permission, not even to go to the market for basic needs – not even to go to the hospital for an emergency. And if one family member did receive permission to leave, others were forced to stay behind, held as collateral to ensure the other's return.

When IJM investigators first met Kutty, he was extremely malnourished and exhausted. He related the harsh realities inside the rice mill with tears in his eyes: "I have four kids in the rice mill working... Even if we are sick, we have to work. We cannot go to our home village for any occasion, or the owner will come after us." The owner also intimidated Kutty and his family with threats of witchcraft, and Kutty told IJM, "I am really scared of him."

Despite his fear, Kutty bravely confided to an IJM staff member, who was there to help Kutty change his reality. In October 2008, IJM assisted local authorities with an operation to rescue Kutty and one other family from the abusive rice mill.

Building a New Foundation

Kutty and his family began a two-year journey through IJM's aftercare program. IJM helps newly released forced laborers learn how to rebuild lives in freedom. IJM social workers regularly visit families and conduct monthly meetings for groups of former slaves to give them a chance to learn from one another's experiences.

Kutty learned about his rights as a citizen, and IJM staff helped him access government benefits that are available to former forced laborers like him. His children are back in school, and he and his wife are both working. Kutty works with the Forestry Department to catch snakes, whose venom is harvested to use in medicine. The job requires exceptional skill and a special license, and Kutty takes pride in his work. He even lobbied the Department for better wages for him and his fellow snake catchers.

With help from IJM's aftercare team, Kutty and his family built a new foundation, and began to dream about a different future.

A Pillar in the Community

"Effective aftercare empowers released laborers to recognize their potential. It does not just enable former forced laborers to take care of themselves, but empowers them to become pillars of the community."

This year, Kutty attended IJM's Leadership Training, a special three-day workshop to equip individuals who have demonstrated leadership qualities with further training so that they can be a voice for their own communities. One of the training sessions was led by a Panchayat President, a locally elected government official who presides over several villages. Kutty was inspired by the good work this leader was doing in his community and asked many questions in order to understand the election process.

Kutty had learned to stand up for his own family's needs, and he was ready to do the same for others.

"Effective aftercare empowers released laborers to recognize their potential. It does not just enable former forced laborers to take care of themselves, but empowers them to become pillars of the community," says Pranitha Timothy, IJM Chennai's Director of Aftercare. "Not only do they protect their villagers from becoming enslaved, but they also contribute to the broader wellbeing of the community. Kutty has benefited from IJM's rehabilitation program and has become just this kind of leader."

Kutty decided to run for election in his own village. As Panchayat President, he would be able to bring better roads, a water supply and electricity to the villages. The Panchayat President is also in charge of the area's public parks and reading rooms.

On October 22, 2011, Kutty won the local election in a landslide victory. No longer a slave ruled by fear, Kutty is empowered to lead his community: "I want to do good for my people and my village," Kutty proclaimed, with a huge smile on his face. The news made the front page ofThe Times of India.

IJM staff visited Kutty to congratulate him and present him with a garland and a shawl to honor him, encouraging him to be a role model and a benefit to his community. Kutty thanked IJM for rescuing him and for all the help he had received in the years that followed.

Forced Labor Slavery, South Asia