Making children work is condemnable. But the worst forms of child labour reflect a depravity in our society that needs attention. Our development is really the saga of sweat, blood and tears of invisible children
“Many things can wait, the child cannot. Now is the time his bones are being formed, his mind is being developed. To him, we cannot say tomorrow; his name is today,” Gabriela Mistral, Nobel Laureate, had said.
From December to June of each year, there is no sign of life in Western Orissa. There are no children playing, no women going about their household chores, no men going to work in these poor districts of Koratpur, Bolangir and Kalahandi. In fact, the only proof that there ever existed any habitation in these areas, is a recurring sight of the old and the infirm.
Where are their young and their children? Here. In the towns of cities of our State, as the sweat and blood that make up our brick kiln industry. These people have been leased as “units” by their sardars, for six months. A “unit” being a family of husband, wife and young child(ren), for whom the going price is anywhere between Rs.8,000 to Rs.10,000. Paid and bought for by their employers here — the owners of the 250 or more brick kilns in Hyderabad, Rangareddy, Medak and Nalgonda districts.
Child welfare NGOs put the number of those who are traded across the border each year at 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 people. These workers possess a specific skill-set and an invaluable asset — their children, whose light-weight and nimble hands are vital to the drying of bricks. The industry is seasonal, the targets deadly. Each family has to make 20,000 to 25,000 bricks each week. Last season, ‘units’ were paid Rs.180 to Rs.200 for every 1,000 bricks, a far cry from the Rs.367 which is the minimum wage. Amounting to a measly Rs.8,000 for a month’s work of 14-15 hours a day.
“They are ideal because they are destitute and afraid, unable to speak the language and unaware of their rights. They live in 5 feet x 5 feet huts, with no access to even basic health and sanitation facilities, education or nutrition. Almost all of these children suffer from acute malnutrition, eye-ailments, skin-allergies and some even lung cancer due to the inhalation of coal fumes. They don’t make minimum wages, have no one to fight for them and so they live and die within the boundary line drawn by their employers. This is, without exception, the story of every brick-kiln in the State,” says programme co-ordinator A Kishan, who has been for the past three years, studying interstate migration for the NGO — Prayas Centre for Labour Research & Action.
All these facts are common knowledge among the powers that be. In fact, those who matter know about it much too well. Rajiv Vidya Mission under the Sarvya Siksha Abhiyan, even has Special Residential Bridge Courses for these children, and yet there is no action by the Labour or any other department, against these employers. “They send nine and 10 year olds to these courses as a compromise but keep the older ones because they are much too valuable at the kilns. No cases are filed against the brick mafia because they have political affiliations and power. Every time anyone asks questions and demands answers, they are attacked, harassed and threatened with death. So now little is done about it,” says Kishan, matter-of-factly.
For their part, officials are mostly defensive. “I wouldn’t say its eliminated, but child labour has practically reduced in the factories due to awareness among employers. It exists mostly only in seasonal factories,” G Balakishore, director of factories said.
Meanwhile, according to ILO, there are over 2 million children in the country toiling away in hazardous industries. A report compiled by MV Foundation from various sources such as the UNICEF and the Human Rights Watch, too paints a shocking picture. It reveals, 53 per cent of 15.60 crore enrolled children in school dropout and a majority of them join in agriculture. More shockingly, it states that while the government of India estimates the bonded labour in the country at 353,000 adults and children, NGOs put the figure anywhere from 2.6 million (adult and child) workers to 15 million bonded child farm workers.
In the State, children constitute 88 per cent of total labour force in cotton-seed production. Working 10-13 hours a day exposed to poisonous pesticides have the children complain of headaches, weakness, disorientation, convulsions and respiratory problems, symptoms of their nervous systems being compromised. “If you think about it, the thing that aam aadmi struggles for all his life — roti (agriculture), kapda (cotton-seed) aur makaan (construction) — are the sweat, blood and tears of children. What can be more tragic than that?”asks Venkat Reddy, national convenor of the NGO, MV Foundation.
While these epic scale horror stories are more easier to identify, the more telling tales are the untold sagas of every day life violence and abuse towards children. Which is why all NGOs and those engaged in child protection are increasingly protesting to the classification of hazardous and non-hazardous labour. “All child labour is hazardous. We recently rescued several children from a bakery which was a complete eye-opener for us. We couldn’t enter because it was so hot and small children were standing shirtless in this blistering heat, working on huge battis (tandoori ovens). If they tipped and fell over, you wouldn’t even find their bones. That’s how pathetic their working conditions are. They fought tooth and nail insisting that these were their own children. We didn’t relent. We found out that they were orphans that the employers had brought from Tamil Nadu and therefore prosecuted the employers. But these cases, as are domestic-labour cases, are many and are extremely hard to identify,” says P Padmavati of Child Welfare Committee, Rangareddy.
With all its loopholes, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 stands clear on the issue. No child under the age of 14 shall be employed in hazardous work. More over, the Right to Education Act further states that all children between 6-14 will have free and compulsory education making it obvious that a child’s place is at school. But laws seem to make little difference in lieu of the absence of political will and public conscience.