Pulled out of school as a 12-year-old, Shivanna Puttaiah spent the next 14 years of his life in slavery working off family debt as a farmhand in India. Members of the “untouchable” caste are often trapped in debt bondage slavery. They borrow small amounts of money from wealthy farmers for emergencies and end up working off the debt for generations. There are an estimated 500,000 people in debt slavery in the Indian state of Kamataka.
“This is a heinous system,” Shivanna told Free the Slaves. He earned his freedom after learning that bonded labor was outlawed more than 30 years ago. He snuck away from the farm and filed papers in court to win his freedom.
“When I was a bonded laborer, I was treated like an animal,” Shivanna said. “When I see bonded laborers, I have fire in my heart.”
Now he works with the grassroots organization JEEVIKA to help free other slaves. JEEVIKA was founded by a former Jesuit priest and is short for Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka, which loosely translates as “life free from bondage.”
“My parents gave me birth,” Shivanna said, “but it is JEEVIKA which gave me a way to lead an independent life. That is why I feel JEEVIKA is just as my father.”
At the 2010 Freedom Awards (airing on Halogen TV Jan. 29, 2011), JEEVIKA was given the Harriet Tubman Award for their work fighting slavery. In the acceptance speech at the Freedom Awards Shivanna had no words to speak and instead shared in song:
“In the cradle of bonded slavery,” he sang, “on the mattress of thorns, why are you still sleeping? Arise and get up! Enough of your sleep! To the people who are arrogant, never bend your head. Arise and get up, wipe out bonded slavery!”
Today Shivanna still does farm work, but he does it as a free man.
“I’m happy to work in my fields because what I earn will actually come back to me,” he said. “I earn this money on my own work.”
Watch him honored at the Freedom Awards, airing exclusively on Halogen TV (online and on-air) Jan. 29, 2011.