NEW DELHI, INDIA – India celebrated 66 years of independence on August 15. But it was the first Independence Day that Banarasi and Darshan Singh had celebrated in two decades: until this summer, they were slaves.
Banarasi, Darshan, and their eldest son had been trapped in a rice mill in Punjab, India since 1994. The Singh family more than doubled in size during that time. Banarasi gave birth to two daughters and another son. Their first grandchild was born in the rice mill, in line to inherit the same bleak future.
Earlier this year, Banarasi met a field worker with Volunteers for Social Justice, an organization working in northern India and recently trained by IJM to rescue slaves. That secret meeting led to freedom for the whole family: In June 2013, government officials led an operation to emancipate the slaves from the abusive rice mill.
Voices of Freedom
For years Banarasi and Darshan were silenced by fear—slaves subjected to their owner's whims. But on August 13, they made their voices heard at a press conference in India's capital city. The recently freed slaves spoke of their reality, a reality that is shared by millions who are trafficked for sex and forced to do manual labor as slaves.
The press conference, called "Voices of Freedom," urged national media, policymakers and other NGOs to ring the alarm that freedom is still not a reality for everyone in India. The event was part of Bandhua 1947, a national advocacy campaign supported by IJM and several other partner organizations working in a dozen states to generate awareness and demand an end to forced labor slavery.
"It is a disgrace and a shame that there is still [forced labor] in modern India," said one Member of India's Parliament, D. Raja, CPI, at the press conference. He added that the Ministry of Labor and Employment (similar to the Department of Labor in the U.S.) plans to host a national consultation for relevant government agencies and NGOs in September to discuss the issue of forced labor and how to effectively eradicate it.
Another prominent voice at the event was a 28-year-old father of four named Lakhi. Hailing from one of the poorest states in India, Lakhi shared how he grew up learning his family time-honored trade of weaving bamboo baskets. When his traditional craft could not support his family, he found work as a migrant worker. But soon after Lakhi started working at a brick factory, he realized that he had been tricked. Along with three of his children, he was trapped as a forced labor slave. He said they worked from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., and they were never let out of the factory alone. He shared how he and the dozens of other slaves like him were beaten and abused.
Lakhi and the others trapped with him in the brick factory were rescued earlier this year, thanks to a government-led operation supported by IJM and an IJM-trained partner. For now, Lakhi has returned to basket-weaving and sells his designs in the market in his village. Lakhi's children are back in school, and IJM is working with Lakhi to ensure his business is sustainable and his family's future is secure.
India's leading national newspaper, The Hindu, covered the press event, and two days later primetime news broadcast CNN-IBN's "Face the Nation" invited Banarasi and Darshan Singh to speak again about their experience as forced laborers. Because the Singh's and Lakhi boldly shared their stories, millions hear their voices calling out for freedom for all.