ODISHA, INDIA — A vibrant group of young and passionate leaders are all set to lead a brand-new survivor network called Shramavahini (meaning “a group of laborers”) in Odisha. Together, they strive to safeguard the lives of thousands of children and families from human trafficking and bonded labor.
Among the seven-member leadership team is Santoshini Rout, a 29-year-old woman who was once a victim of bonded labor at a massive brick kiln in South India.
Santoshini had been trafficked from Odisha to Tamil Nadu after she and her husband took an advance of 40,000 rupees ($487.54 USD) from a local recruiter. They hastily accepted the job offer to urgently pay off some existing debts.
To their dismay, reality was a rude shock. For four months, the couple endured intense physical labor, verbal abuse, and exploitation. The owner wrung as much work out of them as possible but paid them only a meagre 200 rupees ($2.43 USD) each week—an amount that barely covered their food expenses. Any request for wage increments was met with verbal insults from the owner.
Their ordeal ended in 2016 when the government rescued 564 people from a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu. This is the largest bonded labor rescue operation that IJM has assisted in South Asia.
Today, Santoshini stands in the forefront of Shramavahini as its newly elected President. Her story exemplifies the incredible transformative power of freedom—from a victim to an empowered leader.
Rescue opened the door to a world of opportunities for Santoshini
Santoshini explored other job opportunities like tailoring, bamboo crafts, and also occasionally worked in agricultural fields and construction sites. However, her leadership skills became evident during IJM’s monthly aftercare meetings with survivors.
One of the social workers said, “When we trained survivors on skills needed to lead self-sustained lives in freedom, I observed that Santoshini learned quickly and responded well. Seeing her outgoing personality, we made her the master of the ceremony for IJM’s aftercare graduation program ‘Jeebanostav’ in 2019, and later encouraged her to stand for Shramavahini’s elections.”
Shramavahini was formally launched in 2020 as the latest chapter of the Released Bonded Laborers’ Association (RBLA), part of IJM’s Global Survivor Network. With over 1,000 registered survivor members, Shramavahini’s goal is to address bonded labor in Odisha through ongoing engagements with government officials. Additionally, Shramavahini strives to empower survivors to live with dignity and enjoy smooth access to government welfare programs.
Though Shramavahini was launched in December 2020, it became temporarily dormant due to the Covid-19 lockdown and related restrictions. Due to this, the original leaders moved on for various reasons. In order to revive the survivor group this year, Shramavahini elected new leaders.
As Shramavahini is still in its early stages, IJM is supporting them in building the foundation of the network and equipping them with strong leadership. However, the goal is that this network will be entirely survivor-driven and remain an independent powerful voice in the community.
“We decided to revamp the body after we felt the need for new members with passion and ideas. We have been intentionally holding different interactions with the survivor groups to handpick members who are able to communicate their ideas and have the passion to lead the cause,” says Saji Philip, IJM’s State Program Director in Odisha.
Acknowledging the significance of her role as the President, Santoshini expressed, “It is a big responsibility. But I think it is the perfect time to stand up and be the voice for the voiceless. We are going to do great things together as a team to ensure that Odisha has zero bonded labor.
Santoshini aspires to reduce the risk of unsafe migration by collaborating with the government and NGOs to create job opportunities locally, raise awareness of safe migration practices, and emphasize the importance of saving money. She is passionate about working with the government to bring freedom to those trapped in bonded labor.
When Santoshini was rescued in 2016, little did she know that a life of purpose and power awaited her in freedom. Her story serves as an inspiration, reminding us that one act of liberation can redefine the destiny of individuals--from formerly timid victims to empowered leaders who leave a lasting impact in their communities.
Shramavahini is a formally registered survivor network that brings together people who have been rescued from bonded labor. Launched in December 2020, it has over 1000 registered members from five districts in Odisha.
In the mission to combat bonded labor in Odisha, ShramaVahini aims to engage with government officials to ensure that they take the lead in addressing all aspects of bonded labor cases including rescue, rehabilitation, and robust safe migration measures. ShramaVahini strives to empower survivors to live with dignity and enjoy unhindered access to government welfare programs. The ultimate aim is to end bonded labor in Odisha.
To achieve this, Shramavahini has chalked out a list of activities. Some of them are:
- Conduct membership drives to enroll all bonded labor survivors in Odisha
- Lead capacity-building programs for survivor leaders
- Help survivors access government welfare programs
- Partner with NGOs for operational support
- Collaborate with the government in rescue operations and rehabilitation efforts
- Raise awareness through media and social media platforms on safe migration, human trafficking and bonded labor to change the perception of bonded labor