Uttar Pradesh, India - Ten police officers barreled down the road, some on motorcycles, others in a jeep, their sirens left silent so as not to alert anyone. Their mission: to rescue workers from bonded labor, or debt slavery, in India.
But when they arrived at the carpet factory, it was empty except for a man inside.
It appeared that the police were too late.
As the man was questioned, officers outside discovered five children and a disabled adult who had been ushered out the back of the factory. Someone had tipped off the owner, police said.
The police took the group to the sub-divisional magistrate office, where the children reluctantly told their stories.
"We start work at 6 a.m., end at 9 p.m. at night," the smallest said. In return for 15 hours of work, they received a food allowance of just two dollars per week. “My father is dead. So I am working.”
Some of the children didn’t even know how old they were. Their lives revolved around the factory owner’s demands. Despite being in police custody, they were afraid to say anything bad about their boss.
One boy cried for his mommy, as the group was being taken to a safe house. His mother didn’t know where he was, he said. A relative had taken him across state lines to work.
Sub-divisional Magistrate Ranvijay Singh called the problem intractable.
“The main problem is poverty,” he said. “Because of poverty their parents are forced to send their kids to work.”
Until a year ago, work filled the life of 10-year-old Rajkumar.
"I was kneading the mud and made to work at the brick kiln," he said. Now instead of lugging bricks he lugs home books and dreams of his future.
"I want to have a job," he said with a big smile. He wants to work in a job that interests him and not be forced into a job someone else demands of him.
Rajkumar’s village is one that is winning freedom from the practice of bonded labor, where people are enslaved by their debts.
His father says the family was enslaved for three generations to landowners who had loaned them money long ago.
“They would beat us, beat us with a cane. They would kick us. One day they hit me so hard blood came out of my mouth," said Rajkumar’s father, Mathuwaru, who can no longer do hard labor as a result. The women of the village have suffered even worse, he said.
“He has sexually abused our sisters and daughters,” Mathuwaru said of the landowner. “He would send us [the men] away, and he would come to our place."
The villagers have filed a formal complaint with police. Their landowner denies the accusations.
The villagers said legal action would never have been possible, if they hadn't learned of their rights through non-profit organizations working to free entire villages.
“Our field team educates them about the law, about their rights. So at one point they become confident enough to tell the authorities that they are bonded. Then within the groups we try to get them to learn some skills, create some source of income,” said Bhanuja Saran Lal of the Society for Human Development and Women's Empowerment. The local non-governmental organization works with the international organization Free the Slaves to set up such informal education centers for children and adults.
In the case of Gyan Devi’s village, the center offered children a rare chance at schooling while giving their parents a forum to gain a fuller understanding of their rights. There, ladies also learned to make jewelry and sell them as far as the United States.
Lal says it takes at least three years to “free” a village, a difficult and dangerous endeavor. The organization’s workers sometimes face threats from landowners who stand to lose an army of free labor. Laborers also face difficulties: They have to live with the landowners and have nowhere else to go.
Fear still looms for many who have tasted freedom, as well as for those who have not.
“My landowner will not let me go,” said Poonam, a laborer in the crop fields for the village landowner. She went back to the fields to pick weeds.