Independent Appeal: Modern face of slavery

They are lured by the promise of money and training, but end up as domestic workers who endure abuse and beatings at the hands of their masters.

She came to Delhi dreaming of a new start, of escape from a life of poverty and hardship. Yet when she arrived, Sushma Kumari quickly realised she had been tricked.

Far from being trained in the skills of acupuncture, for two years she was forced to work as an unpaid domestic help in the home of the "doctor" supposed to be teaching her. She toiled from 5am to midnight, seven days a week. She was abused and mistreated. Almost certainly she was brought to Delhi by a professional trafficker; what is beyond doubt is that once she got here she lived the life of slave.

For a woman who has the right to burn with anger, Sushma talks in little more than a whisper. "I really wanted to go home but I was not allowed to talk to my father," she says. "I felt desperate, cheated."

The story of Sushma is a journey to the dark side of the new India, away from the tales of soaring economic growth and gleaming fashion malls, of Western-style coffee-shops filled with a newly wealthy class. The two are surely connected; chief among the reasons for the growing demand for young, poor women from places like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other desperately poor states to come to toil in India's growing metropolitan centres, is that a new generation of professional women entering the workforce no longer have the time or inclination for household chores. Human traffickers fill the gap.

And in a way, Sushma had been drawn by the promises of the New India. After she was forced to leave school early because the family were so poor, her father learnt, through an acquaintance, of an acupuncturist in Delhi looking for a trainee. A middle-man arranged that Sushma could be that person.

"When we left the village, we were taken to another village for a month and then brought to Delhi. In the first weeks there was some informal training but it became obvious we were there to work as domestic servants," she recalls. "After that, we just had to work. When my father called I was told to say everything was fine and that I was doing well."

The reality was quite different. Beaten and abused, accused of stealing and worked to the bone, Sushma wanted to escape but did not know how. She suffered for two years before learning, through another domestic worker, of an organisation that could help. Then she ran away.

The treatment of India's domestic workers is a topic the establishment rarely addresses. Relied upon to cook, clean, shop, wash and iron clothes and even nanny children, they become indispensable for many families. Yet while some employers treat them well, many are remarkably cruel. Stories of abuse abound. Last month, a badly beaten 13-year-old girl was rescued from the home of a professional couple in Gurgaon, Delhi's hi-tech satellite city. The couple told police they beat the child to get rid of their stress.

The charity Sushma ran to for help is called Nirmana. Established 12 years ago, the group uses trained overseas volunteers from a partner organisation, Voluntary Services Overseas, one of the charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. One of the volunteers working with Nirmana is 25-year-old Serena O'Sullivan.

Serena worked for a FTSE 100 company for a year after leaving university but decided she wanted to do something more fulfilling. After working for several charities, she became convinced that governments in poor countries needed to be pressed to include the poorest people in their programmes. "It led me to accept a VSO placement in India with Nirmana. I am able to share my skills in communications and advocacy, but also spend time with rescued workers and help to get their voices heard at a national and international level.

"It is very hard to reconcile your own life and those of the people here. You hear the worst stories you can imagine. You wonder how one person can treat another person like that," she says. "It is as if some people here think that others are not deserving of the same rights."

The scale of the problem Nirmana is trying to deal with is vast. A full 40 per cent of the people involved in domestic work are below the age of 14. And the number of people being trafficked is growing. The agencies which place them are unregulated and unsupervised.

But slowly the country is being forced for the first time to consider the problem. The work of Nirmana and VSO is one factor. Another has been the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel White Tiger, which won this year's Booker Prize with its account of the abuse and mistreatment of servants. Some abused servants are summoning the courage to speak out.

One such is 17-year-old Meena Tirki. Meena says she is 17 but she could be younger. Though Meena tries to smile as she tells her story, her face is impossibly sad. And with good reason. The eldest of four girls from a village near Siliguri in West Bengal, Meena's family could never afford to send her to school. Earlier this year, an agent came to her village looking for girls who wanted to work in Delhi.

Under pressure from her step-mother, Meena agreed. Placed with a family in East Delhi, Meena found herself sleeping on the roof during the blistering summer, rising at 5am to begin a day of exhausting labour. The family said they would not pay her and the abuse began almost immediately. "The husband would hit me. He would accuse me of not working," she says. But Meena heard about Nirmana and she also ran.

With the help of Nirmana, Meena and Sushma have since been placed with other families in Delhi where they are working as domestic help. It would be a lie to say their stories have a saccharine-sweet ending. While they are now being paid, they receive only a pittance – less than £30 a month – and they still work gruelling hours.

But there is the vaguest flicker of hope. Sushma has been attending an open school in Delhi and hopes to complete her exams in April. She says: "Then I will decide whether to go home or not." She has begun to take control of her life.

Fancy a swim with Rebecca Adlington? Or cocktails with Claudia Winkleman? The deadline for bids in The Independent's Christmas auction is 11 o'clock this morning Go to www.independent.co.uk/auction

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Life and Style
i100

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Architect - Surrey - £35k-£45k DOE - Permanent

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Infrastructure / Network Engineer (VMware, Windows, LAN/WAN)

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Primary teaching jobs in Thetford

£1036224 - £1513056 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Educatio...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week