"Can you imagine seven, eight people squeezed into this space?"
By Anuradha Nagaraj
RANIPET, India, July 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The hut sits in the middle of a government office in southern India. Small, with smudged walls, it has tin sheets for a roof and a tiny window that barely lets in light.
The hut - a replica of his former home - resembles a "film prop", according to Chinnaraj Balan.
But when Balan was building the tiny, dark space, he relived every moment of the three years he had spent in bondage at a brick kiln in southern India, working endlessly to repay a loan of just 5,000 Indian rupees($77.60).
His home back then had been "something worse than the prop".
This week, as Balan stood outside the replica he had build in Ranipet town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, he urged officials to step inside and "relive his life in bondage".
Part of a unique awareness drive for government officials whose job is to identify bondage cases, as well as rescue and rehabilitate the workers, Balan hopes to shock and sensitise.
"Can you imagine seven, eight people squeezed into this space?" Balan asked officials.
"My family and I lived like this, with no electricity in our homes, no bathroom facilities. Cooking, eating, sleeping in this tiny hut. It was like hell."
Over the next month, Balan and his hut will travel across 11 districts in Tamil Nadu, reaching out to nearly 2,000 officials who are seeking out cases of bondage that lurk in the smallest villages and biggest cities alike.
"The idea is to make officials aware of the nuances of bonded labour," said Helen Barnabas of non-profit International Justice Mission, which is running the campaign in collaboration with the state government.
"Sadly, many law enforcement officials have no clue on how to deal with these cases. For most, this is the first sensitisation training on this issue."
BANNED BUT WIDESPREAD
India banned bonded labour in 1976, but it remains widespread, with millions from the marginalised Dalit and tribal communities working in fields, brick kilns, rice mills, brothels or as domestic workers to pay off debts.
Last year, the Indian government announced plans to rescue more than 18 million bonded labourers by 2030, and increase compensation for rescued workers by fivefold as part of its efforts to tackle modern slavery.
Tamil Nadu's awareness drive is an attempt to get officials to be proactive in identifying cases of bondage.
As officials squeeze into Balan's hut, a dramatised audio play tells the story of a young family trapped in debt bondage, the most prevalent form of slavery in India.
"It is so dirty, with all the clothes hung on a line and the utensils on the ground," said village level officer B. Paneerselvam after he spent a few minutes in the hut.
"There isn't enough space to sit, also."
A SPUR TO ACTION
With delays in getting compensation, paperwork and lack of proper rehabilitation, falling back into bondage is the greatest challenge faced by those who have get out, they said.
"Many officials see this as an economic problem and not a case of bonded labour," Barnabas said.
Nearly 200 officials attended the programme in Ranipet, many posted in villages and towns that have been identified as hotspots for bonded labour.
"Many are not fully aware of the law and the recent changes in it," said Vellore Ganapathy Ramesh Kumar, labour officer in charge of the district.
"The simulation shows how deplorable the conditions of bonded labourers are. It should leave an impression in the mind of government staff and spur them to take action."
($1 = 64.4300 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. http://news.trust.org)
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