Fighting injustice

World News Day: A woman's journey from slavery to activism in India

After spending six years as a bonded labourer, Ms Pachayammal is now an activist and, along with her husband Arul, has rescued more than 100 people from slavery.
After spending six years as a bonded labourer, Ms Pachayammal is now an activist and, along with her husband Arul, has rescued more than 100 people from slavery.PHOTO: THE QUINT, INDIA

For Ms Pachayammal, 25, freedom tastes like briyani. That was the dish she first ate after getting rescued from six years of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu.

"We were finally able to eat a meal in peace," she said.

Now a feisty activist, Ms Pachayammal, along with her husband Arul, has rescued more than 100 people from slavery, advocated for homes and helped in rehabilitating them.

Ms Pachayammal's story is one of 10 women's stories featured as part of The Quint's "Me, the Change" campaign. The campaign, presented by Facebook, sought to put focus on a demographic usually ignored by mainstream media - female voters who are heading to the polls for the first time.

Launched in October last year, the campaign highlighted the issues and aspirations of these first-time woman voters in the run-up to this year's Lok Sabha elections.

Ms Pachayammal married Mr Arul when she was barely 16. Although she married willingly, little did she know that she was being wedded into slavery.

She said: "My husband's parents had a debt which he had to repay. The 'owner' decided to get me married to my husband so that we formed a 'pair' (easy to manage, lower pay and we wouldn't run away). We didn't know this. I, too, really liked my husband so I married him."

The couple faced physical, verbal and sexual abuse daily.

Ms Pachayammal was paid 200 rupees (S$4) a week, and, along with more than 25 other bonded labourers, slaved for the quarry owner for six years. She was given one meal a day of watery rice gruel and worked nearly 12 hours daily.

"At 4am every day, the owner would call us to break rock. Some days, the men would have to work till midnight," Ms Pachayammal said. This went on until she was rescued at the age of 23.

According to The Quint, more than one million people were bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu last year. After her rescue, Ms Pachayammal turned to activism, drawing from an unending well of self-confidence and seeking out basic rights (homes, electricity, work) for rescued bonded labourers.

She stakes out quarries, brick kilns and carpentry workshops suspected of hiring bonded labourers for months, trying to get close to the workers. Afterwards, she ropes in government officials and organises raids.

Ms Pachayammal is now part of the State Rural Livelihoods Mission and gets a steady monthly income.

Occasionally, she does daily wage work. Her husband earns a living driving an auto-rickshaw he received from a corporation as part of their social work. Both of them are doing very well today.

• This story was originally published on Nov 30 last year.


BEHIND THE STORY

In gathering Ms Pachayammal's story, three reporters at The Quint reached out to global non-governmental organisation International Justice Mission, from where many case studies were sourced, before zeroing in on her.

 
 
 
 

Before The Quint's video, Ms Pachayammal was already a true inspiration, but her story was not covered in mainstream media. The sight of a camera or journalist would push her into what could be described as the "camera effect".

All her responses were rehearsed and interactions were formal. Ms Pachayammal was expecting to be fed words to say, which she would then rattle off. This had been her common experience with the media and what had always happened.

To tackle this, The Quint reporter Vikram Venkateswaran made several trips to Ms Pachayammal's village with a cameraman, but without any equipment. The team got to know the villagers and spent time with Ms Pachayammal and her husband. It was only on the fourth visit that the reporter brought a camera along.

On the sixth visit to Ullavur village, which is a three-hour drive from Chennai, the camera was finally unveiled. Over a kerosene stove, as Ms Pachayammal prepared "sambar" (a local dish), the reporter started a conversation about food - what she liked to eat and what she got to eat while she was a slave. And so began the genuine retelling of Ms Pachayammal's inspirational story, which the team managed to capture on camera, minus the hesitation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2019, with the headline 'A woman's journey from slavery to activism in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe