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Indian Slaves Trade Life of Service for Leadership Position

A tea plucker at work on the Priyadarshini Tea Environs plantation in Wayanad, India, December 27, 2019. (Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anuradha Nagaraj)
A tea plucker at work on the Priyadarshini Tea Environs plantation in Wayanad, India, December 27, 2019. (Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anuradha Nagaraj)
Indian Slaves Trade Life of Serviec for Leadership Position at Tea Plantation
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While drinking tea with officials at a plantation in southern India, Sharda Krishnan had memories of her childhood. She thought of the farm where, as a girl, she was enslaved.

Her only payment was food. Her future seemed hopeless.

Now she co-owns a tea plantation in Kerala state. Former enslaved laborers have operated the farm for almost 35 years. It is a place where freedom is a given and fear does not exist.

“There will always be work issues, but it will never be like earlier, said Krishnan. Her family was rescued from forced farm labor in the 1980s.

“I am one of the owners now so why should I be scared?” she asked.

The state government gave over 360 hectares of land to survivors of slavery in 1986. Since then, workers have started farming other crops. They now grow peppers and coffee, as well as tea. The plantation has also opened itself to eco-tourism. It welcomes visitors interested in seeing a large undisturbed, natural area.

The plantation is considered an unusual success story in India, where the government estimates about 18 million people are trapped in slavery. They work without pay on farms, in factories, as servants or as sex workers to repay debts.

Once rescued from slavery, workers are sent back to their communities with some money and the promise of more support.

Yet most survivors struggle to receive government assistance. They often end up jobless and unable to pay off their debts. So many fall right back into slavery.

Projects such as the Kerala plantation bring victims together. They receive support from charitable groups, which hope to change the lives of slaves who have been freed.

Rehabilitation of rescued workers continues to be one of the biggest challenges,” said Kandasamy Krishnan. He heads the National Adivasi Solidarity Council, an organization that works on labor rights issues. He spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The plantation...should be celebrated,” added Krishnan. He believes the model should be used in other parts of India. “Training the rescued workers to run it could be a starting point.”

Tea tourism

The name of Sharda Krishnan’s plantation is the Priyadarshini Tea Environs. Its 150 workers produce about 40,000 kilograms of tea each month.

Every Vishwas Gold tea packet sold there has a note explaining the slaves-to-owners story and a picture of hands breaking free of chains.

An industry slowdown led to losses, so the plantation teamed up with the state’s tourism office to organize events for tourists to raise money.

“We want every visitor to know the struggle of the men and women behind the plantation,” said Vikalp Bhardwaj, a civil servant. He directs day-to-day operations at the plantation.

The events have created jobs for the children of plantation workers. They have been trained to work as travel guides or in tourism.

“When the rehabilitation program reaches out to the next generation as well, it is complete,” said Dinesan Chirakkal Kalarikkal. He leads a local human rights charity.

India’s program for victims of forced labor gives survivors financial help, as well as some land, chickens, and job training to help start afresh.

Yet as of last April, just one survivor received the full compensation of $2,500, government information shows.

Kuralamuthan Thandavarayan is with the anti-slavery group International Justice Mission.

“Group models do better because they bring survivors together as a community and help them rebuild together,” he said. “They become each other’s support system as well.”

I’m Susan Shand.

Reuters reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

plantation – n. a large farm

scared adj. frightened

eco-tourism – n. visiting a place for pleasure while helping with environmental issues

undisturbed – adj. not interfered with; untouched

charity – n. a group that helps the poor

rehabilitation n. to make a person as they were before sick or a tragedy

challenge – n. a goal that is difficult to reach

packet – n. a covering or container; a small, thin object

chain – n. a series of metal links connected to another one; something that restricts movement