By Brian Campbell, International Labor Rights Forum
Police in the Indian state of Gujarat arrested Harmish Patel on Wednesday for allegedly trafficking children for labor. Patel is the owner of Umapati Ginning in the village of Bodaso in Kedi, Gujurat, where in this past February Anil, a 12 year old child laborer, had been working ginning cotton when he lost his arm in a tragic ginning accident. Patel’s arrest release came more than two months after Anil’s step mother, Hakribai Bhagora, filed a complaint with the local police with the help of local labor organizers from PRAYAS, seeking Patel’s arrest.
Justice for Anil was short lived, though. When news broke in the local media of Patel’s arrest, labor organizers from PRAYAS immediately contacted the police to inquire about Anil’s condition, who was being held captive by Patel since the February accident despite efforts by his family to secure his release.
When making the arrest, though, police did not attempt to notify Anil’s family or PRAYAS, nor did they take Anil into protective custody. Instead, Anil was left in the hands of Patel’s family. Most recently, when Anil’s older brother Thrava, 18, a factory worker in nearby Ahmedabad, and an organizer for PRAYAS visited Patel at his home in Kedi last Saturday to again request his release, Patel refused to allow Thrava to meet with his brother alone and they could only talk under the watchful eye of the cotton gin owner.
Upon receiving the news of Patel’s arrest and subsequent release, PRAYAS organizers, along with the International Labor Rights Forum, intensified efforts to secure Anil’s release. Setting out from Udaipur, we began a search for Anil’s step-mother, Hakribai, who lives in the small, remote town of Balvawara more than 200 kilometers north of Ahmedabad deep in the Aravali Hills of southern Rajastan. Winding our way through rocky country, we reached Balvawara in the afternoon, and after an exhaustive search through the nearby towns, we eventually found her hard at work in a nearby town unaware that her stepson’s captor had been arrested and then released back to Anil. With Anil’s stepmother on board, we set out early last night for the long drive south to Gujarat finally reaching Ahmedabad late in the night, too late to go to the police in Kedi, who have so far proven unwilling to help Anil. Not knowing whether Anil was safe; only knowing that he was back in the hands of his alleged trafficker, all we could do was wait until morning before attempting again to find Anil.
This morning [April 13, 2012], we gathered in the PRAYAS office in Ahmedabad to discuss the plan for securing Anil’s release. With media in tow, we soon set out for the police station Kedi with Anil’s stepmother, hoping that with his family present the police would change their mind and decide to help secure his release. When we reached the town in heart of Gujarat cotton country, PRAYAS organizers called Patel, whom they knew from previous efforts to get Anil, and requested again that he turn over the child to his family, even offering to forgo filing another criminal complaint with the police in return. Then, we waited. Patel responded that he would be willing to release Anil, but only after his family met his ransom demand, signed legal waivers preventing them from pursuing any further legal recourse against him. Then he said that he would deliver the child to the police station in thirty minutes.
For more than four hours, we sat waiting for Patel to arrive at the Kedi police station, nervous that he would not show when, at around 5 pm this afternoon, Patel arrived at the police station that with his entourage visibly confident that police would take not take action against him. But Anil was still nowhere to be found. At that point, we all entered the police station to meet with the local police inspector. For nearly one hour, police questioned both Patel and Anil’s step-mother, during which time Patel defended his continued custody of Anil by arguing that his family had abandoned the 12 year old child when they sent him to work at the cotton gin and that his step-mother had been a negligent parent. Patel also argued that Anil was being well-treated, and that he was enjoying his stay at his house and did not want to leave.
With Anil still in the custody of Patel’s family, the police sought to broker an arrangement for his return, which ultimately resulted in an agreement by Anil’s family not to press charges for holding Anil against his will for two months if Patel would immediately deliver Anil to the police station. Under the scrutiny of local Gujarat state media, Patel eventually agreed.
At 6:30 today, to the great relief of everyone, Anil was finally delivered by the Patel family to the police station and returned to his step-mother and brother. Happy to be with his family, Anil’s two months of captivity, which began with his losing his arm in a cotton ginning accident, was finally over.
(Sadly, Patel left a free man to gin with children again.)