CHENNAI, INDIA – After decades living and working in an abusive, inhumane catfish farm, more than 30 people were set free this week, including children and two pregnant women. On the farm, the slaves were forced to wade into man-made pools to harvest catfish, baiting them with maggot-infested chicken carcasses.
Shocking Squalor and Inhumane Working Conditions
IJM worked with a local partner, Association for Rural Development (ARD), to investigate the farm, located three or four hours outside Chennai. IJM's Anu George, who leads a Chennai-based project to train other NGOs and government officials throughout India on how to combat forced labor slavery, has met scores of slaves in remote areas of her country, but was struck by the particularly grotesque and squalid working conditions on this farm: "What hit me first was the foul smell, then the image of rotting carcasses of unnaturally bloated chicken floating in the grimy ponds." Anu added that she later learned that the slaves "had to rip chicken intestines apart with their teeth, to use as catfish feed, and then get into the pond containing the gruesome waste to catch the fish."
One man who looked about 70 years old sobbed as he explained that this had been his life for 25 years. Through tears, he told the rescue team of police, IJM and partner staff how they worked. It started with a three- or four-hour journey to Chennai, to purchase dead or dying chickens. Back at the farm, the chicken's feces and the bird carcass would be haphazardly piled together so maggots could grow. The slaves would mix fungus grown in another pond with the rotting chicken parts and dump it into the small ponds. Finally, they would wade into the fetid water, stagnant but for the prickly catfish feeding off of the bait. The fish's spines pierced their ankles, leaving bruises and welts.
As the man spoke, he stood near a pile of the rotting chicken parts. He scooped up the feed and maggots crawled over his hand. With hollow eyes now dry of their tears, he implored the rescue team: "How can I eat with these hands after I do this work every day?"
The Lost are Found
While the rescue team of police, government and NGO partners helped the slaves load onto buses that would take them to safety, IJM realized that one family was missing. A search began for this missing couple and their two children. After a couple hours searching the surrounding woods, an IJM staff member and police found the family and escorted them to the government office where the others were waiting. The family explained that they had been whisked away as the rescue team arrived. They believed the owner would have held them hostage and feared what else the man might do to them. To Anu George, finding the family was nothing short of a miracle: "God intervened again. This time, he took us to a hidden path, through the forest to one hidden family."
Back at the office, the families shared more stories about their life on the squalid farm. IJM and ARD staff supported the families as they waited to be questioned by the government officials, making sure the families received a hot meal and giving the children colored pencils and paper to play with.
Nighttime arrived but interviews with the government officials continued. Tea and biscuits were passed out as they waited. Finally, six hours later, the government official in charge issued a dozen release certificates. These legal documents emancipate the men and women – plus two children – from slavery and entitle them to monetary compensation and other government benefits. It was the first-ever rescue operation on a fish farm in this district.
The Weight of Freedom
As the rescued slaves clutched their release certificates, the weight of their freedom started to sink in. One old man who appeared partially paralyzed and not completely lucid wobbled toward Anu using a sturdy stick to stay upright. "He approached me but couldn't speak; years of living in an environment of parasitic and chemical pollution had completely broken down every shred of resistance and sapped his spirit, destroying his responsive system," Anu said, adding that "it was all he could do to smile through moist eyes, and that thankfully, because he could not muster the strength to command his faculties."
The founder of IJM's partner ARD said the successful rescue operation was an "historical moment in our fight for oppressed people," and he added his thanks to the government officials who "actively led the rescue and release."
Anu gave "the freedom speech," the final remarks given to the group of rescued slaves before they go home to their villages. An ARD staff member translated to the local dialect as Anu spoke candidly about the challenges that lie ahead and admonished the men, women and children to stay strong and support one another. IJM and ARD will work hard to restore the dignity and lives that have been denigrated by years of inhumane, unsafe work.
Anu said the final moments were sweet: "When the freedom speech was delivered...we saw hope and tears and smiles on their faces."