Author: Aashish Yadav of BBC Media Action, May 13 2014      Meet Manki. His weathered face breaks into a smile when he greets you. But behind his grin and friendly demeanour, there’s a darker story to tell.

Manki is from a tiny village in the district of Latehar in Jharkhand state, in eastern India. Forty two years old, he lives with his seven children, wife and mother in a mud house of four rooms.

To find work, he and his fellow villagers often travel large distances to earn money.  "If a contractor tells us that we’ll get higher wages in a city far from our village, we go," he says, "This makes us vulnerable and can sometimes lead to bad situations."

This is exactly what happened earlier this year when Manki and ten of his neighbours were convinced by an agent to leave their homes and work on a construction site in Bengaluru in South India - more than 800 miles away.

Modern slavery

They had been promised a place to live, good food to eat and Rs 440 (just over £4 or US$7) for a 12-hour day - a fortune for Manki and his fellow villagers.

But when they arrived in Bengaluru, the 11 men were first placed in one small room in a high-walled compound which was constantly guarded – and only paid Rs 120 (£1.17/US$2) for a day’s work.

“At the end of the month, they also only paid for 10 days of work even though we had worked the entire month,” Manki says. “They didn’t pay us any cash either - they transferred the money into a bank account they had made for us but none of us knew how to withdraw the money.”

The living conditions, meanwhile, were terrible. “We felt like we were in jail,” Manki says, “The food was terrible and they would not let us leave the compound. Even when one of the other labourers got sick, they would not let him leave.”

If the labourers complained, the contractor threatened them and said they wouldn’t be paid.

Last straw

For three months, Manki and his fellow labourers worked until they dropped. They could see no way out.

Then Manki heard his mother was sick: “I told the employer that I wanted to go home to look after my mother but he didn’t allow me. That’s when I thought about running away. I thought to myself that if I don’t go now my mother will die, so what’s the use of going back home once my mother is dead?”

He had kept a small amount of money back from the journey to Bangalore and, with the help of his friends, managed to run away from the compound and use the money to travel the hundreds of miles home.

Who are you calling helpless!

Meanwhile, his village had been listening to Majboor Kisko Bola!, our programme about bonded labour.

The show’s title means “Who are you calling helpless!” and it aims to increase awareness about bonded labour, what causes it, how it can be prevented and how people can take action if they’ve been conned.

For villages like Manki’s where there is no TV or radio, a recording of the show is played during weekly listener clubs where facilitators also lead discussions about the issues each episode raises.

When Manki arrived home from Bengaluru, he shared his horrific experiences with the village elders, his family and neighbours, and started listening to the programme along with them.

That’s when the idea struck Manki. He noted the helpline number that’s announced in every episode and appears on every wall painting advertising the show - and made that one call which would lead to his friends’ freedom.

Our BBC Media Action team in New Delhi followed up Manki’s call, and informed our partner organisation in Lateher, LEADS. With their help, Manki filed a police complaint.

Within a week the 10 remaining labourers were rescued and brought back home. Not only that, thanks to the police intervention, they also got their full wages.

Manki’s story is noteworthy not just because of its inherent drama; it also demonstrates the power of communication. It shows how a programme can create awareness, stimulate discussion and empower people to act.

After listening to the programme, Manki and his villagers are not majboor (helpless) anymore. They tell us they feel less vulnerable to exploitation because they are armed with information and are more confident of their bargaining powers.

As Manki says, “If I have benefited from this programme, I’m sure others will too. If anyone else needs help or is stuck somewhere, this call number will be of help.”

There must be hundreds of Mankis in the villages of India. We hope this project can expand so that many others can feel they are no longer helpless.

Majboor Kisko Bola! is produced with funding from The Google Foundation.
Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in India.
Image credit: BBC Media Action

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