By Pravin Thakre in Osmanabad and Zoya Mateen in Delhi
On a scorching June night, Bhagwan Ghukse woke up with a jolt and decided to run for his life.
For the past month, Mr Ghukse had been kept captive in a squalid shanty in the western state of Maharashtra along with six other daily-wage workers. The workers were hired by some contractors in the state’s Osmanabad district to dig wells, but were later forced into bonded labour which is illegal in India.
Mr Ghukse described the dehumanising living conditions, of being beaten, drugged and forced into long hours of manual labour with little food or water. At night, the workers would be chained to tractors so that they couldn’t escape. And when they couldn’t sleep, restless from pain, hunger and fatigue, Mr Gukse said the men would lash them with sticks and then forcefully sedate them with alcohol.
“I knew death was inevitable here. But I wanted to try escaping at least once before that,” he said.
On most days, Mr Gukse and other captives would get so exhausted with work, beatings and no food that they would have no energy left to plan their escape.
But on 15 or 16 June – Mr Ghukse can’t remember the exact date because the days had long started blending into each other – he decided to give it a try. Crouching in the darkness, he reached for the little lock of the chain on his feet, slid a finger inside and kept twisting it for hours until it finally came free.
As he clambered out of the compound, he saw a vast sugarcane field and decided to run towards it. “I had no idea where I was. All I knew was I had to get back home. I followed a railway track next to the field and kept running.”
Mr Ghukse managed to reach his village and informed the police about the torture, following which officials rescued 11 other workers from two separate wells run by the same contractors.
“At first we didn’t believe the labourer, but when we reached the location, we were shocked to see the conditions of the men,” local police official Jagdish Raut, who is in charge of the case, told the BBC.
Police say the men were forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day to dig the wells, after which they were chained and subjected to repeated physical and mental torture. “They had no toilet facilities, they had to relieve themselves inside the wells they were digging and then clean the waste after finishing work,” Mr Raut said. Most of them had blisters and deep gashes of wounds on their eyes and feet – some of them are undergoing treatment in hospital.
Seven people, including two women and a minor, have been charged with human trafficking, kidnapping, abuse and wrongful confinement under the Indian Penal Code in connection with the case, which has made headlines in India all week. Four of them are in police custody, the minor is in a juvenile detention centre and two are absconding.
Police say the victims were all poor and landless daily-wage workers who came to Ahmednagar town near Osmanabad in search of jobs. Here, they were contacted by an agent who then sold these workers to some contractors from Osmanabad for 2,000 to 5,000 rupees [$24 to $60] each.
The agent promised the workers that they would get 500 rupees with three meals a day for digging the wells. When the men agreed, he called them to a common location, bundled them inside a tuk-tuk, and intoxicated them with alcohol before driving them away to different locations.
At the well compound, the contractors confiscated their phones and snatched their official documents.
“After keeping them in such horrible conditions for two to three months, the accused would release the men without paying them a single penny,” Mr Raut said, adding that they were investigating if there are any other locations in the district that were still operating in a similar manner.
Families of three labourers told the BBC that they filed missing persons complaints but they alleged that the police refused to open an investigation.
The police officials did not respond to BBC’s request for comment on the allegations, but an official told the BBC on the condition of anonymity that the police had failed to act on time in the case.
Weeks after their escape, the workers say they are yet to come to terms with the trauma.
Many of them are trying to rebuild their lives but say they constantly find themselves slipping into despair when they think about the torture.
“We were treated like slaves,” says Bharat Rathor, one of the rescued labourers, as he showed his wounds – a swollen eye and gaping blisters on his feet.
“The contractors would beat us black and blue almost every day and feed us stale chapatis (flatbreads) with salt and a few morsels of brinjal. Sometimes farmers from nearby fields would come and see our pathetic condition but no one tried to help us.”
Mr Rathor says he came to Ahmednagar after the death of his father because he had to look after his ailing mother. “But God only knows how I survived what I faced there.”
His story is not different from that of Maruti Jatalkar – who was also compelled to leave his home in Nanded district because of his economic situation. A farmer, Mr Jatalkar’s elder daughter was supposed to get married in May. As his village had no work in summer, he went to Ahmednagar in search of a job and got hired by the agent.
His plan was, if he worked for 15-20 days at the well, he would have enough money to make arrangements for the wedding.
But he could do neither – after being rescued, he found out that his daughter had already been married off. “I cried so much that day,” he said.
Mr Jatalkar says he still gets afraid every time he thinks about the time – nearly two months – he spent at the well.
“They would send us inside early in the morning and only let us leave late at night. We used to urinate and defecate there. If we asked for food, they would beat us and say we’d only get one meal.”
While the pain still lingers, the workers say they are hopeful about starting over – last week the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) pulled up the state government and directed authorities to provide relief to the workers under the country’s labour laws.
“In the meantime, we’ll find work in our villages and earn whatever we can” Mr Rathor says. “Maybe life will get better soon.”