Ray of hope
Forget, for a moment, the raucous discourse surrounding the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s blot out every argument, the nay and aye-sayers, some of them maybe relevant elsewhere, but not here. The Nobel Peace Prize, in recognising Malala Yousufzai and Kailash Sathyarthi, has given, in no small measure, a huge fillip to the cause of child rights in this subcontinent.
“There seems to be an instrumental approach to the issue of child labour in the way they [Nobel committee] made the statement. It should have been a more ethical voice; child rights are an end in themselves, not a solution for conciliation between nations. A prize of that stature must have invoked us to transcend all identities and end child labour once and for all,” says Shanta Sinha, former Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Ms. Sinha is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her work in the area of child rights. “It is a very important award that deserves to be highlighted. It is recognition for those who are working to end child labour and promote education for all,” she adds.
Much of that work, however, remains to be done. Children interviewed by The Hindu correspondents across the country show those in the age group of 5-14 working as domestic helps and in brick kilns and firecracker factories; trafficked as commodities for labour and commercial sex; and begging on the streets.
A childhood of labour
Anumeha Yadav reports from New Delhi:
On September 2, 13-year-old Gupi* arrived at the Bokaro station from Delhi by Purshottam Express, accompanied by the police. A few minutes later, the tribal girl, who had worked as a domestic worker in Delhi, boarded a bus to Ranchi and then to Gumla, her home district. In Gumla, she was produced before the Child Welfare Committee where her testimony was recorded, and hours later, she was sent back to her village.
It is a routine that repeats every month. Since January, 140 children, almost all of whom had worked as domestic workers, returned to Jharkhand. Diya Sewa Sansathan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been operating a missing children helpline with the Jharkhand Police since October 2013, say it has recorded information on 220 children, mostly tribal children, missing from 22 districts. Of them, 100 have been traced back, with 70 rescued or having fled from domestic work in Delhi.
Twelve-year-old Sabi (name changed) escaped from the room in which she would be locked in for the night in a house in Delhi, jumping from the room’s window into the building staircase.
“Uncle, aunty lived in the house with a Bhaiya, Didi and their infant. I took care of the baby. They gave me roti usually in the evening. At night, I had to massage aunty’s feet and apply oil and only after she slept, I could sleep. Then Bhaiya would lock me in my room,” she recounted.
She said it had been a year since she had spoken to anyone in her family. She had been beaten with a rolling pin and once with a hot tawa. She said she fled from the house after the woman in the house she worked in cut her hair without asking her …
Among children who have returned to Jharkhand after working as a domestic help is nine-year-old Sabita, whose family in Khunti district, on being traced, refused to take her back. “I lived with my maternal uncle. A woman came to the village and took me with her after asking my uncle. The family I worked with were all right, but they cut my hair saying I had lice. The grandmother in the house would scold me often and hit me saying I had stolen food from the fridge. But I hadn’t. I ran out of their door till I reached the road,” recounted Sabita, now staying in a shelter home run by the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS).
“Some of the children do not speak at all for days. Some of them, including those younger than 13, recollect how their employers told them that they have been bought for Rs. 10,000-20,000. They say they understood hum bichwa gaye hain (we had been sold to them),” said Budhmani Oraon who teaches children at a shelter home run by the BKS in Chanho on the outskirts of Ranchi.
“The Jharkhand government has prepared an action plan delineating the responsibilities of various departments — labour, home, women and children — when a child is rescued, but there are no clear directions on rehabilitating children, placing them in good residential schools,” said Rishikant of Shaktivahini, an NGO.
A life spent amid trash
Kathakali Nandi reports from Kolkata:
For 13-year-old Bikash, early morning is a busy time. He is usually jolted awake by a police patrol and has to flee in time or else get beaten up for sleeping near the subway close to the Howrah station complex. Bikash and other little boys then have to wait for an opportune time to enter the station complex in search of plastic bottles which they will sell to the shops located opposite the station.
As hundreds of other boys, Bikash is a rag-picker and his life revolves around the Howrah station complex.
“I fled from my home in Paschim Medinipur [district] and came to Kolkata five years ago. Ever since then, I have stayed here,” says Bikash adding that he has rarely gone home in the past five years. He claims he was a pickpocket before the police caught him and beat him up. A “better job” beckoned — rag picking.
Business, however, is on the decline for rag-pickers near the Howrah station complex. Their entry has now been prohibited by the Railway Police Force, reducing their earnings substantially. While Bikash would earn about Rs. 600 daily as a rag-picker, he now ends up earning half of that.
On the streets
Vinaya Deshpande reports from Mumbai:
For Akash Hiwale, it was a life he was not prepared for. He ran away from his house in Jalna in central Maharashtra around five years ago, to escape his abusive father. But he did not know how difficult life outside the confines of home would be. Five years after he criss-crossed the country to beg on different trains to feed himself, he now feels like going back into the arms of his mother. He wants to play with his younger sister again, he wants to study, and become a police officer one day.
“I remember my house,” he could barely speak as his voice choked. Talking about the family brought tears to his eyes. So he changed the topic.
“My father never allowed me to study. He never sent me to school. I wanted to learn, but he wanted me to go to the fields and earn,” Akash slowly opened up. He said the day his father beat him up for not going to work, he ran away.
Since then, he has begged and got addicted and was abused. He does not know his age. But the look on his face shows that the adolescent has lost his innocence too early in his life. “I don’t know which all places I visited. I used to hop trains and beg,” he said. He admitted to have been addicted to cigarettes, gutka, tobacco and whitener.
Amarnath Tewary reports from Patna:
Hundreds of thousands of poor children migrate from Bihar every year to work in the unorganised sector. One favoured area of employment is brick kilns, where children can be found working along with their families.
Raja, 13, works for nine hours to earn between Rs. 200-300 every day at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Patna. His work starts at 5.30 in the morning and ends at dusk. Working along with him are Sonu, 11, and Shiv, 6. They work for eight months at a stretch — from October 15 to June 15 — as the work at kilns is halted during the four months of rains. In the south, the situation is the same, except that the rainy season shifts to October.
“I was born at a brick kiln in Gopalgunj district. Since then, I’ve been seeing my parents working at brick kilns. So it has come naturally for me to pick up the work,” he said.
There are thousands of such children who could be found working at any of the total 6,477 registered brick kilns in Bihar. “There are over 50 brick kilns on the river bank near Patna stretching from Khajekalan to Kachi Dargah,” said a brick kiln owner preferring anonymity.
Children are employed in brick kilns from an early age and each family is expected to make around 1.5 lakh or more bricks during a specific period, mostly to repay loans taken from the labour contractor who often operates as the middleman between the labourers and the owners.
Playing with fire
S. Sundar reports from Sivakasi:
Poverty has forced many children to take to work at a young age in Sivakasi. Though the firecracker manufacturers of Virudhunagar district, the hub of fireworks in the nation, have declared the industry “child labour-free” years ago, it is not hard to challenge the claims made by employers engaged in this business of over Rs. 2,000 crore.
Though it is hard to find children working in a licensed fireworks shop floor, the unorganised fireworks sector that has flourished as a cottage industry and functions from homes employs children.
In Sivakasi town, this correspondent met a school dropout who was “mainstreamed” by the National Child Labour Project, but discontinued his education in Class 7. Having started his career in a paper tube-making unit at a daily wage of Rs. 60 two years ago, the boy now gets Rs. 120 daily for working nine hours at the unit. His salary helps the family of six to run a hand-to-mouth existence in a single-room rented house.
Several children like him continue to work in the hazardous fireworks industry. Even as the industry continues with its denials, in February this year, the Sivakasi tahsildar rescued three children in the age group of 11-15 who were involved in making crackers in an illegal unit.
It is hoped that the Peace Prize will raise the stature of child rights as an issue, and that attendant benefits will follow for the millions of children, such as those profiled above, who have been forced to work in order to survive.