Nepali workers flee Punjab’s rice mill, report death from torturous conditionsA total of 14 people had gone to Punjab in the second week of October to work at Mittal Rice Mill in Samana.
Lakhan Ram, a 54-year-old man from Baramajhiya in Kanchanrup Municipality-2 of Saptari, died in a rice mill in Punjab on Sunday. Lakhan’s nephew, Naresh Ram, who also works at the rice mill, said that his uncle had gone to bed around midnight after a long day of intensive work. Lakhan didn’t wake up the next morning.
Lakhan claims harsh working conditions and inhumane treatment at the mill led to his uncle’s untimely death.
A total of 14 people including Lakhan had gone to Punjab in India in the second week of October to work at Mittal Rice Mill in Samana.
According to Naresh, two local men, Laxmi Das and Inarjit Yadav of Kanchanrup took the workers to Punjab assuring them of employment at the rice mill. The workers were promised IRs 10,000 per month as salary.
Lured by the prospects of an income, the workers did not think twice before agreeing to leave for Punjab, says Naresh. The working conditions and additional perks and benefits were not discussed.
Pankaj Ram, another Nepali worker at the rice mill, says their group of 14 was taken to Nirmali in Bihar through Kunauli where they were made to wait for six days before they left for Punjab.
“We were finally taken to Punjab along with 180 Nepali workers brought there from different places,” said Pankaj. “At the rice mill, our job included drying paddy under the sun and storing them in sacks later.”
The duty was long, says Pankaj, lasting 18 hours a day. “We were forced to work from 6 in the morning to midnight. The employer’s men gave us some rice and pickles. We would work hungry all day and go to bed hungry.”
Pankaj accuses the mill operators of physical abuse and intensive manual labour in difficult conditions. “They would lock us inside a room during the night. They severely thrashed us if we spoke up. We were held hostage inside the mill’s premises and forced to work up to 18 hours a day,” he said.
Four out of 14 workers from Baramajhiya fled the mill on the fifth day of starting work. Pankaj, among the first ones to escape, says when other workers tried to escape they were captured and tortured.
“We decided to run away at night since we could not bear the torture. We went to another place in Punjab and worked at construction sites. We managed to save IRs 1,000 each so we returned home,” said Pankaj. “Two other workers, Naresh Ram and Niraj Sheikh, also tried to run away but they were caught and taken back.”
Naresh says the mill staff thrashed him and Niraj with wood strips for two continuous days. “They threatened to kill us if we tried to escape again,” he said. “We just couldn’t stay there. There was never enough food; the work hours were long and they gave us gunny bags to sleep on. We were being treated like work mules.”
The mill operators wanted to cremate Lakhan, Naresh’s uncle, in Punjab itself but Lakhan’s son Badri warned of legal consequences if the mill operators did not release his father’s body to his family.
“It was an unnatural death. My father was tortured and kept hungry. The pathetic working conditions led to his death. The contractors who took him and other workers from Nepal should be held accountable to my father’s murder,” said Badri.
Naresh and another worker Dev Sundar Ram brought Lakhan’s body home two days ago. According to Dev Sundar, three Nepali workers have been held hostage in the mill. He said the mills have held Niraj Sheikh, Rahim Sheikh and Kisor Ram of Baramajhiya captive.
“They want to leave but can’t. They are not allowed to come out of the mill,” said Naresh. Kisor’s health is ill and his condition is worsening with every passing day. “His limbs are swollen and he has been vomiting blood. But the mill operators have denied him medical care,” said Naresh.
The family members of Kisor, who Dev Sundar alleges is being confined to the mill, say the operators have not given them access to Kisor. “The mill operators do not let us talk to him over telephone. He hasn’t been allowed to return home. We are deeply worried,” said Kariyahi Devi, Kisor’s wife. “I request the Nepali authorities to intervene and help us rescue Kisor and others from the clutches of the mill operators.”
On Wednesday, Lakhan’s family and those of other workers lodged a complaint at the Area Police Office, Kanchanpur demanding their rescue. They have sought strong action against the agents and contractors who lured them into the jobs. They have filed complaints against Laxmi Das of Kanchanrup-3 and Inarjit Yadav of Kanchanrup-9 who took the workers to India.
“A complaint was filed with the police. We are inquiring about the incident,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Naresh Kumar Singh.