After a decade of activism, more than 7,000 bonded laborers have either escaped or been rescued in raids on Pakistan's feudal fields.
When peasant Tago Bheel and his wife, Mira, fled from the captivity of their feudal lord last month, they knew it was a matter of life or death. Barefooted and starving, both ran all night, collapsing on reaching safety as the sun dawned on a new day for the couple.
They escaped from agricultural fields where they had worked for the past ten years as bonded laborers in Pakistan's Sindh Province. "We were living like slaves," says Mr. Tago after his escape. "We used to dream of freedom every day and now it has become a reality."
There are more than 7,000 bonded laborers like Tago, who either escaped or were released by human rights activists in Sindh Province during the past decade from the clutches of feudal lords.
Human rights activists say there are thousands more still forced to work in the fields, struggling to pay off debts taken anywhere from a few years to a few generations ago. In Sindh Province, feudal lords have clout in the main political parties and some are even members of parliament - while the peasants have been long disadvantaged as part of a low-caste Hindu minority.
"Bonded laborers are the new face of slavery," says Hassan Dars, a sociologist in Hyderabad. "Here, people are still being bought, sold, and bartered."
These indentured workers are mostly inhabitants of Pakistan's Thar Desert, bordering India's Rajasthan arid zone. They entered this cyclical trap when they needed money to survive during their seasonal migration from the drought-hit desert. Taking a cash advance on their services, laborers pay off their bonds in captivity, sometimes being exchanged between landlords across the country.
Tago's troubles started when he had no money to pay for his sister's marriage. He borrowed $175 from the local feudal lord and agreed to work off the debt in his fields.
"We worked in the fields all day and would be given bread, green chilies, and onion for meals. We were not allowed to go outside the fields to attend weddings or funerals. For us, the field was a prison," says the skinny Tago.
"Once the hari [peasant] is caught in debt then he and his family becomes virtual prisoners of the feudal lord," says Nasreen Pathan with Pakistan-based Human Rights Commission. "Peasants are illiterate and cannot keep account, and the interest on the loan increases on the whims and wishes of feudal lords and their men."