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From manual scavenging to modern day slavery: the endless suffering of Budhu Gowala
Farhana Ahmed

 NORTH LAKHIMPUR, Feb 23 - He has been a familiar face in and around the areas housing the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, office of the Superintendent of Police, Circuit House and North Lakhimpur Govt HS Secondary School – the centres of district headquarters of Lakhimpur, pulling a worn-out bicycle with two tin boxes carrying kitchen and food wastes from eateries for an unauthorised piggery. With an ever-smiling face and singing popular Bollywood songs of the yesteryears, he has not been seen doing his usual job for last several months and found in the piggery limping with a stick with a broken leg. He is Budhu Gowala, son of late Nanka Basfur from Ward No. 6 of North Lakhimpur. In his late fifties, Budhu has been a victim of what can be termed as modern day slavery in an unauthorised piggery for the last several years with no wages and having no option to go anywhere else.

 According to Budhu, his mother married Nanka Basfur when she got widowed and he followed the job of his step father– that of manual scavenging for a long time till recently. For the last several years, he has been engaged in the unauthorised piggery located in a byelane just opposite to the District Judicial Complex and Deputy Commissioner’s Office, North Lakhimpur as a manual scavenger. His daily work includes collecting kitchen and food wastes from eateries and feeding them as fodder to pigs and taking care of them besides doing other manual cleaning works. But the sad part of the story is that Budhu has not been paid a single penny by the piggery owner over the whole period. He is given only meals, a shed to sleep in and a tattered blanket. Most of his dresses have been donated by sympathisers who know him for a long time.

Three months ago Budhu, who is also visually impaired with heavy cataract, slipped and broke his right leg. But his employer has not provided any medical care to treat his broken leg. He was left to his shed and some traditional treatment and quackery has been applied to heal his injury. Deeply hurt and frustrated, Budhu attempted to escape his captivity in his limping state on February 21. But he was badly beaten up by the owner of the piggery, a lady and put inside his scanty shed. However, Budhu has no one to live with and nowhere to go. This has taken heavy toll on his mind and he has become mentally imbalanced.

This brutal bondage and slavery is happening just in front of the all state agencies establishments—the DC’s office, SP’s office, social welfare departments, the municipality office in North Lakhimpur. The concerned authorities of the district are unaware of this tragedy unfolding in their close proximity.

The flagship programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have been in slogans only as the piggery is a threat to public health in a populated residential and administrative area with stagnant sewage fill. Secondly, the lack of any initiative or extension work by department of social welfare and social justice in providing help and protection to helpless individuals who are denied their basic human rights including the just wages for their services have also been contributing towards the suffering faced by manual scavengers like Budhu Gowala. Budhu has no BPL card, AADHAR card, his name is neither in the NRC list nor is he having any beneficiary cards like Atal Amrit Yojna or a beneficiary of the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) provided by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India (Assam has 16 scheduled castes including Basfor for this scheme), PMAY card or SUH-DAY-NULM number. Budhu is not in any beneficiary list as he does not belong to anyone’s vote bank. The Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes department of Assam has already conducted a survey in three districts (which includes Lakhimpur) and has identified 542 manual scavengers following the directions by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in a meeting of the state-level monitoring committee for implementation of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013 on July 18, 2019. But no scheme has been announced so far to benefit victims like Budhu Gowala.

Similarly, slavery and captivity by employer in the case of Budhu Gowala deserves immediate intervention by the State. Besides no wage, Budhu has also been denied adequate food and clothing by his captor. He needs immediate rescue and rehabilitation as Budhu has no family members. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, allows the transfer of a little bit of capital to every person who comes out of slavery. It provides grants so that the victim gets food, clothing, shelter and safety and also rehabilitation with jobs in victim’s skill sector. The State government has provisions for providing shelter to destitute women and children but not for male adults like Budhu Gowala.

According to a Walk Free Foundation report in 2016, there were 46 million people enslaved worldwide in 2016 and 18.3 million people in India were living in the forms of modern slavery.

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