Independent Appeal: Charity in mission to combat India's shameful slave trade

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Dev Lal is an escaped slave. When he ran away, he was able to go back and rescue his wife and daughters. But he could not save his two young sons, Krishna and Kishan. They are still being held captive by Mr Lal's owner, and the police have refused to do anything about it.

Mr Lal and his family are victims of a modern-day slave trade that is flourishing in India - and the authorities are doing nothing to stop it. Mr Lal was only able to rescue his wife and children because of the help of Jai Singh, the local partner of Anti-Slavery International, one of the charities in The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year.

From his simple office in the small Punjabi town of Phillaur, Mr Singh is striving to secure the release of Mr Lal's sons. They are just two of the thousands of cases he has on his books.

Like most of the escaped slaves Mr Singh rescues, Mr Lal is a Dalit - a member of the former Untouchable caste of India. From a penniless background, he found himself trapped in a modern practice that is slavery in all but name: bonded labour. The poor take a job on the lure of a loan on future earnings. But once they start working they find they are not paid: the employer just says they are working to pay off the loan. It goes on for years, and they are never quite able to pay off the loan - which means the "employer" gets years of free labour. Mr Lal was tricked into a life of slavery for a loan of £23.

At this time of year, Punjab, in north-west India, looks like Victorian England. Horse-drawn carts loom out of the thick pea-souper fogs that shroud the landscape. From time to time the fog parts to give a glimpse of tall smoking chimneys. These are the brick kilns where most of India's bricks are made - and a major centre of bonded labour.

Mr Lal comes from hundreds of miles away, in the dirt-poor jungle state of Chhattisgarh. He was struggling to feed his children, and when his father fell sick, he couldn't afford medicine. So when a recruiting agent came with an offer of a job at a brick kiln in far away Jammu, and an advance on his wages of 2,000 rupees, it seemed too good to be true. It was.

He and his family set off with a group from their village to Jammu, on the plains that lie between Punjab and Kashmir, to work in the brick kilns. "We worked for a long time. When we asked for holidays, they refused us. When we asked for our money, our employer became violent and swore at us. He didn't allow us to leave the kiln for anything. Eventually some of the other workers ran away but I got trapped.

"When the employer found out the others had escaped, he got angry. He told me I would be liable for all the loans he had given the others, and that I now owed him 60,000 rupees [£680]. My wife and children were all in his custody. He said if I wanted to take them away I had to pay him 60,000 rupees. I had no way of raising that kind of money. I couldn't go to the police because they were with the brick kiln owners."

Mr Lal decided he had to take action. He escaped in the night and made his way to Punjab, where he heard about Jai Singh and his organisation, Volunteers for Social Justice.

But when he returned with Mr Singh, he was in for a shock. His "employer", Kaku Chaudhari, had sold Mr Lal's wife and daughters to brick kiln owners in the Kashmir Valley but kept his sons to try to make Mr Lal pay off his "debt".

Rushing to Kashmir, Mr Singh was able to release Mr Lal's wife and daughters. Bonded labour is illegal in India. But Mr Chaudhari did not give in so easily and will not release the sons. The police have refused to help. Mr Singh is planning to petition India's President to save Mr Lal's children.