Hikmat Ali called his family on July 5 with disappointing news. His “malik”, or supervisor, had just told him and his colleagues that they could not go home for Eid.

It had been a little over a month since the 45-year-old from Bhakuamari village in Assam’s Baksa district had travelled hundreds of kilometres to Arunachal Pradesh as part of a group of 28 workers to labour on a border road project close to China.

Denied leave for Eid, 19 of them had “fled the camp and gone missing,” said Ali’s aunt, 65-year-old Jamiran Nessa.

On July 23, eight of the 19 missing workers were rescued after they had spent nearly three weeks wandering through dense forests and hilly terrain. They had bad tidings for Hikmat Ali’s family. “We heard from his rescued colleagues that he is not alive,” Nessa said. “His wife and one of his brothers fainted after hearing the news.” Hikmat Ali was the only breadwinner of his eight-member family.

Although the authorities in Arunachal Pradesh haven’t confirmed Ali’s death, hopes of finding him alive have faded. Of the 19 workers who fled, 10 have been found alive. Five decomposed bodies were recovered from dense forests in Arunachal while a sixth body was found in the Furak River. Some of the bodies are so badly decomposed, they are yet to be identified. On August 1, the search for the remaining three workers was called off.

Hikmat Ali is still missing. Photo: Special arrangement.

The workers had been recruited for a Border Road Organisation project to build a road from Damin to Huri in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kurung Kumey district. The Border Roads Organisation is the road construction agency of the Indian armed forces. The project had been farmed out to contractors who were in charge of managing the worksite and recruiting for it.

Residents of Bhakuamari and the families of at least two workers allege they had been trafficked from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh and made to work under coercive conditions.

Johurul Islam, a relative of one of the missing workers, filed a first information report against Raham Ali, one of the subcontractors, on July 29. On August 1, he was arrested by the Arunachal police and booked for cheating and criminal breach of trust.

On August 2, a second arrest was made. Bengia Tani, the brother of Bengia Bado, the main contractor to whom the Border Roads Organisation had outsourced the project, was booked for wrongful restraint, criminal intimidation and section of the Arms Act. According to Inspector Gejum Basar of Arunachal’s Koliarang police station, he had fired in the air on July 4, the day before the workers fled the worksite.

But the Arunachal police and Border Road Organisation officials, as well as contractors in charge of the project, have denied allegations of forced labour.

Either way, the episode has thrown light on a grim reality in Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the workers employed for border road projects come from poor Muslim-majority districts in Lower Assam. Driven by desperation and drawn by the promise of higher daily wages, they end up working under exploitative conditions.

Hikmat Ali's family are losing hope that they will find him alive. Photo: Special arrangement

Such a long journey

From Assam to Arunachal’s Kurung Kumey, about 90 kilometres from the Chinese border, is a long journey. But a network of contractors runs a well-oiled system to get workers past inter-state borders.

The missing workers were part of a group of 28 who left their homes in various districts of Lower Assam on May 30, said Malek Ali, one of the subcontractors responsible for their journey from Lower Assam to Upper Assam, in the eastern part of the state, up to the border with Arunachal Pradesh.

They reached the Banderdewa gate on the state border, about 20 kilometres from the Arunachal Pradesh capital of Itanagar, on May 31, he said.

There, according to residents of Bhakuamari who had been in touch with the workers, they were handed over to subcontractors Raham and Kuddus Ali, both from Upper Assam’s Lakhimpur district and close aides of Bengia Bado, the contractor to whom the Border Roads Organisation had outsourced the project. Raham and Kuddus Ali helped the workers with formalities such as getting an Inner Line Permit. This is a travel document that people from outside the state must show as they enter Arunachal Pradesh.

Then, Raham and Kuddus Ali took the workers up to Damin circle in Kurung Kumey district, about 400 kilometres from Itanagar. From there they travelled to the project site at Huri village and reportedly started work on June 8.

The flight

The men had been promised Rs 430 as daily wages, along with food. According to Mainul Ali, a Bhakuamari resident who is now helping the workers’ families coordinate with the Arunachal authorities, the system of payments ensured the workers remained tethered to the job.

“Raham Ali had already taken the money from the supervisor [Bado], so they would only be released or allowed to leave the worksite if they repaid the money by working there. These workers are sold by contractors like Raham Ali,” Mainul Ali alleged.

Subcontractor Malek Ali did admit most of the workers had been paid an advance when they reached Itanagar “as they were very poor”. But he claimed to have been kept in the dark about how much money Raham Ali had been paid by Bengia Bado.

“Raham Ali took Rs 2.5 lakh from our malik, Bengia Bado, when we reached Itanagar. He transferred Rs 1.13 lakh to me and I distributed the money among 20 workers,” he said at first. When Scroll.in called him a few days after the first conversation, he said he had later learnt that Raham Ali had reportedly got Rs 3.77 lakh from Bado.

When contacted by Scroll.in, Bado refused to divulge details of the project or the financial arrangement between him and the subcontractors. He also refused to respond to allegations of forced labour.

Whatever the arrangement between Bado and Raham Ali, the latter left the camp on June 19. Malek Ali claimed that when the workers had said they wanted to go home for Eid, Bado told them they could go once Raham Ali returned. This might not have happened soon as the road was blocked because of heavy rain and landslides.

Mainul Ali claimed Raham Ali had decamped with money owed to the workers. “After the contractors fled, the workers thought the malik would not allow them to leave as he had already paid the money,” said Mainul Ali.

For days, tensions mounted in the camp as the workers kept pressing to be allowed to go home for Eid. Matters came to a head on July 4. Shahadat Ali, one of the 28 Bhakuamari residents working at the camp recalled that the project manager had told them he would arrange goats for the qurbani, ritual sacrifice, on Eid. “But some of our colleagues did not listen, so Tani opened fire to threaten them into staying,” he recounted. He stayed on, but many lost patience. “Nineteen others fled on the night of July 5.”

A map tracing the journey of the workers. From Bhakuamari village (blue house marker) in Assam they proceeded towards the Banderdewa gate (purple marker)and then to Itanagar (yellow marker). From Itanagar they proceeded uphill (blue marker) to Huri village under Damin circle. Credit: Customised using Google Maps.

‘My son said he was sold’

Many of the labourers appear to have been misled that they were being taken to Arunachal for work. Take 25-year-old Wajed Ali from Assam’s Bongaigaon district – as of July 28, he was still missing.

“The contractor, Raham Ali, had said that he [Wajed Ali] would be engaged as a daily wage labourer at Malda in West Bengal,” said his father, 66-year-old Bakkar Ali, a rickshaw puller. “But he was taken to Arunachal instead.”

Bakkar Ali had last spoken to his son on July 3. “He had told me that they were suffering a lot and wanted to return,” he said. “But whenever he told his maliks, they threatened them with guns.”

Bakkar Ali also alleged that Raham Ali had sold his son. “Our son told me that he had been sold…We do not know where he is now,” he said. “One of the people from our village, Abdul Amin, has been rescued. We don’t know whether our son is alive.”

Bakkar Ali claimed his son, Wajed Ali (above), said he had been sold. Photo: Special arrangement

Despite the FIR against Raham Ali, the Arunachal police dismissed claims they were engaged as bonded labour.

Said Inspector Gejum Basar of Koloriang police station, where the FIR was filed, “It is a false allegation that they were bonded labourers. The employer gave advance money to the workers before bringing them to the worksite. But they didn’t work even after taking money. They fled the worksite without completing the work.”

When contacted, a senior Border Road Organisation official distanced himself from the matter. “This particular work was executed by a contractor,” said the official, who did not want to be identified. “We don’t have any control over the labourers. The BRO did not have any role to play in hiring and approving the leave in the missing workers incident. They are not BRO labourers.”

Scroll.in sent an email to the Border Road Organisation asking about the allegations of forced labour. This piece will be updated if there is a response.

Journalist Tongam Rina of The Arunachal Times said the Border Road Organisation was known for treating its workers poorly, whether they were directly employed or recruited through contractors.

She also held the contractors responsible for the workers’ plight in this case, pointing out that the workers went missing on July 5 but Bado only filed a missing report on July 13.

Cycle of distress

The 19 workers who went missing are part of larger labour flows from Assam to Arunachal. Barpeta-based child rights activist Rafiqul Islam said that traffickers target the poor or unemployed residents of disaster-prone villages in Assam, where floods and land erosion have taken away livelihoods in agriculture.

Islam explained how these operations work. “Sub-contractors or touts, to be more accurate, pay people to make recruitments in their respective villages,” he said. These local contacts meet poor families and lend them money to buy essentials.

“When they can’t pay back the money, he offers them a job far away, sometimes lucrative,” said Islam. Stuck in this cycle of debt, many fall into the trap of traffickers. Islam, who has coordinated rescues in the past, says touts target younger people knowing they can easily be exploited.

Rustom Ali, one of the six workers from Bhakuamari who were found dead. Photo: Special arrangement.

A rescue

Among those rescued from such harrowing working conditions was a group of workers from Barpeta district who had travelled to Arunachal Pradesh in 2020.

Floods and a summer wracked by Covid-19 lockdowns had led to extreme distress. In Barpeta’s Sidhuni village, a Class 9 student was forced to look for work after his family’s crops had been destroyed in the floods and his father also had to stop driving his electric rickshaw for a while.

Around August, a contractor from a neighbouring village contacted the family, offering them work on a road construction project in Upper Assam’s Lakhimpur district. The teenager said he decided to go work on the project to support his family and buy himself a bicycle. Schools were closed because of the pandemic anyway.

“My parents are too poor to buy me a bicycle and are already in debt,” the teenager said. They had already taken a loan to buy the e-rickshaw. “Before going, I had told them [contractors] if schools opened, we would return.”

A party of 28 workers – 12 of whom were underage – set out from Sidhuni and the neighbouring village of Gurala. Twenty-seven-year-old Abu Salam, who lives in Sidhuni and was also one of the workers, said they were promised Rs 400 as daily wages. But they were not bound for Lakhimpur in Assam.

Salam said the group was herded into a pick-up truck that drove them to Arunachal Pradesh. At the Bhalukpung gate on the Assam-Arunachal border, the group took Covid-19 tests and registered for the inner-line permit. From Bhalukpung, the group was taken to Seppa town, 140 km away in Arunachal’s East Kameng district.

The actual worksite – mountainous and thickly forested – was 4 km uphill from Seppa, with no electricity or mobile connectivity.

Instead of road construction work, the group was made to break stones. The workers alleged their employers did not give them any money. According to the teenager, their contractors later told them they had been sold. “We – the 12 children – were sold for Rs 12 lakh,” he claimed.

The workers had to survive on one daily meal, consisting of rice and dal. Both Salam and the teenager said their supervisors brandished guns and threatened them with violence if they did not obey.

The group was finally rescued from East Kameng’s Dada village, where they had been kept under tight vigilance and not allowed to contact their families. The East Kameng child welfare committee, along with Islam and other Assam-based activists, had carried out the rescue operation.

From Sidhuni village (blue house), the group was taken to Bhalukpung gate (black) and then to Seppa town (yellow marker). Credit: Customised using Google Maps.

Laws missing in action

Such incidents point to the shoddy implementation of laws that protect the rights of migrant workers.

Advocate Sauradeep Dey, of the Guwahati chapter of the Human Rights Law Network, said properly implementing the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979, could go a long way towards preventing “migrant workers being trafficked” or taken to work in unknown locations. The law was enacted to protect workers requisitioned outside their native states.

If the law was implemented better, Dey explained, there would be better documentation of inter-state migrant workers, employers and contractors.

According to Dey, it would be easier to fix accountability in case of mishaps, which would ensure labour managements behaved more responsibly.

Tapan Sarma, Assam general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, pointed to the importance of laws such as the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, and the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996, which ensured labour welfare. “As per the acts, all labourers need to be registered but successive governments have not done it,” said Sarma.

In Assam, he felt, there were social as well as political reasons for labour welfare laws being neglected.

“Most of the unorganised labourers belong to [the] minority Muslim [community], which [is] considered non-Assamese by a section of people,” said Sarma, referring to long-running prejudices against Bengali-origin Muslim in Assam. He alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government – which has peddled an openly majoritarian agenda – was also reluctant to implement such laws.