HYDERABAD: When Veero Kolhi made the asset declaration required of the election candidates, she listed the following items: two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of Rs2,800.
While she may lack the fortune that is the customary entry ticket to politics, Ms Kolhi can make a claim that may resonate more powerfully with poor voters than the wearily familiar promises of her rivals.
For Ms Kolhi embodies a new phenomenon on the campaign trail — she is the first contestant to have escaped the thrall of a feudal-style landowner who forced his workers to toil in conditions akin to modern-day slavery.
“The landlords are sucking our blood,” Ms Kolhi told Reuters at her one-room home of mud and bamboo on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
“Their managers behave like pimps — they take our daughters and give them to the landlords.”
To her supporters, Ms Kolhi’s stand embodies a wider hope that the elections will be a step towards a more progressive future for the country plagued by militancy, frequent political gridlock and the “worsening” treatment of minorities.
To sceptics, the fact that Ms Kolhi has no realistic chance of victory is further evidence that even the landmark May 11 vote will offer only a mirage of change to a millions-strong but largely invisible rural underclass.
Yet there is no doubt that hers is a remarkable journey.
A sturdy matriarch in her mid-50s who has 20 grandchildren, Ms Kolhi — a member of the Hindu community — is the ultimate outsider in an electoral landscape dominated by wealthy male candidates fluent in the art of back-room deals.
Possessed of a ready, raucous laugh, but unable to write more than her name, Ms Kolhi was once a “bonded labourer,” the term used for an illegal but widely prevalent form of contemporary serfdom in which entire families toil for years to pay often spurious debts.
Since making her escape in the mid-1990s, Ms Kolhi has lobbied the police and courts to release thousands of others from the pool of indebted workers in the (Sindh) province.
On April 5, Ms Kolhi crossed a new threshold in her own odyssey when she stood on the steps of a colonial-era courthouse in the city and brandished a document officials had just issued, authorising her to run for the provincial assembly.
With no rival party to back her, Ms Kolhi’s independent run may make barely a dent at the ballot box in Sindh, a stronghold of the PPP.
But her bravado has lit a flame for those who adore her the most: families she has helped liberate from lives as vassals.
“Once I only drank black tea, but now I am free I can afford tea with milk,” said Thakaro Bheel, who escaped from his landlord a decade ago and now lives in Azad Nagar, a community of former bonded labourers on the edge of Hyderabad. “These days I make my own decisions. All that is thanks to Veero.”
ESCAPE: Like millions of the landless, Ms Kolhi’s ordeal began a generation ago when drought struck her home in the Thar desert, forcing her parents to move to a lush area in search of work harvesting sunflowers or chillies.
Ms Kolhi was married as a teenager but her husband fell into debt and she was forced to work 10-hour a day picking cotton, gripped by a fear that their landlord might choose a husband for Ganga, her daughter, who would soon be 10 years old.
One night Ms Kolhi crept past armed guards and walked barefoot to a village to seek help. Her husband was beaten as punishment for her escape, Ms Kolhi said, but she managed to contact human rights activists who wrote to police on her behalf.
Officers were reluctant to confront the landlord but they relented after Ms Kolhi staged a three-day hunger strike near the police their station. More than 40 people were freed.
Now Ms Kolhi spends her days careering along dirt roads in a battered minivan decorated with stickers of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on her quest for votes. Her only luxury: her favourite brand of cigarette. Her only campaign equipment: an old megaphone.
While Ms Kolhi clearly enjoys meeting supporters, she has still only reached a fraction of her constituency’s 133,000 voters.
The favourite remains Sharjeel Memon, an influential businessman and PPP leader.
Memon was not available for comment.
Although Ms Kolhi works with a local organisation that says it has helped rescue some 26,000 indebted workers over the past 12 years, several estimates put the total figure of bonded labourers in the country at roughly eight million.
Ms Kolhi’s supporters say the only way to end the “oppression” in Sindh would be to give destitute workers their own plots of land. But as long as the feudal class retains political influence, talk of land reform remains taboo.Undaunted, Ms Kolhi — bedecked in a garland of red roses and jasmine — launched her shot at office with an ultimatum.
“First we will ask the landlords to obey the law, and if they refuse we will take them to court,” she said, her voice rising with emotion. “We will continue our struggle until the last bonded labourer is freed.”