Friday, April 26, 2013

Voting to be free

"The landlords are sucking our blood. Their managers behave like pimps - they take our daughters and give them to the landlords." explained Veero Kolhi, a candidate for Pakistan's May elections
She is the first contestant to have escaped the thrall of a feudal-style land owner who forced his workers to toil in conditions akin to modern-day slavery. Kolhi was once a "bonded laborer," the term used in Pakistan for an illegal but widely prevalent form of contemporary serfdom in which entire families toil for years to pay often spurious debts. Since making her escape in the mid-1990s, Kolhi has lobbied the police and courts to release thousands of others from the pool of indebted workers in her native Sindh province. Like millions of the landless, Kolhi's ordeal began a generation ago when drought struck her home in the Thar desert bordering India, forcing her parents to move to a lusher belt of Sindh in search of work harvesting sunflowers or chilies Kolhi was married as a teenager but her husband fell into debt and she was forced to work 10-hour days picking cotton, gripped by a fear that their landlord might choose a husband for Ganga, her daughter, who would soon be ten years old. One night Kolhi crept past armed guards and walked barefoot to a village to seek help. Her husband was beaten as punishment for her escape, Kolhi said, but she managed to contact human rights activists who wrote to police on her behalf. Officers were reluctant to confront the landlord but they relented after Kolhi staged a three-day hunger strike at their station. More than 40 people were freed.
At Azad Nagar, the village for freed workers, provided a glimpse of the timeworn tricks they use to ensure debts keep on growing.

Lakhi Bheel produced a scrap torn from an exercise book that declared he had accumulated obligations of 99,405 rupees after toiling for three years. Bheel said he had decided to make a break for freedom after the land owner threatened to sell the family's daughters in return for bride prices.
"I didn't eat meat once in three years," Bheel said, adding that shotgun-toting guards had sometimes roughed up workers. "We had to pay half the salaries of the men who were beating us."

Kolhi's supporters say the only way to end the oppression in Sindh would be to give destitute workers their own plots of land. But as long as the feudal class retains political influence, talk of land reform remains taboo.

The sad fact is that Kolhi has no realistic chance of victory even the May 11 election will offer only a mirage of change to a millions-strong but largely invisible rural underclass. But her beat-the-odds bravado has lit a flame.

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