India

The Blind Spot That Is Child Labour

This article is by Akansha Yadav, State Programme Coordinator for the Government of Andhra Pradesh in India, and originally posted on Lives Some Live.

The Blind Spot That Is Child Labour

Children working is a common sight in India – young girls carrying water and/or washing utensils, young boys working in the fields or indulging in activities not compatible with their age – such as gambling. Rather than going to school, they often work for ungodly hours. And worse, they have no right over income and resources that they generate (if at all they are paid!)

While travelling around various states in India, I keep coming across these images, quite often and much the same. Children out of school, working in horrible conditions with no bargaining power, underpaid and malnourished. Some see it as cheap labour and some see them as not our responsibilities but a product of unavailable or poor public education system.

They live in conditions we will never allow or even imagine for our own children. Admittedly, we have grown immune to these images given how pervasive they are and despite the shocking nature of this reality, it does not seem to assault our senses any more.

Some of these images left me disturbed and I am curious to know if you notice the phenomena that is child labour. Do share your views.

A boy cutting onions for his father's railway side restaurant in Paderu, Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh. He had a small puppy to keep him company while he went about doing this mundane job.
A boy cutting onions for his father’s railway side restaurant in Paderu, Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh. He had a small puppy to keep him company while he went about doing this mundane job.
A young girl doing embroidery on a bag for selling it at her stall in Hampi, Karnataka
A young girl doing embroidery on a bag for selling it at her stall in Hampi, Karnataka

Children often serve as cheap, acquiescing labour. If not employed by their own parents (and simultaneously being out of school), they work for very low wages for others and quite often exposed to exploitation – physical, mental and emotional and most vulnerable to abuse on regular basis.

Few months back, while eating at a roadside dhaba in Jharkhand, I came across a nine-year boy working there. Dressed in tatters, he was serving beer/whisky to group of men sitting inside playing cards. When I asked the dhaba owner about his schooling and working hours (who was a migrant from nearby Bihar and more excited to tell us the story about how he established this dhaba than deal with this interrogation!), he dismissed it summarily stating, “he is my ‘naukar’, why will he go to school?”.

The word ‘naukar’ loosely translates to the word lackey in English and if one lives in an artificially sanitized environment for a long time, this term has long been replaced with a lesser (but still) offensive maid, chotu or bai in towns. It repulsed me to hear that word and what I found more infuriating was dhaba owner’s sense of entitlement over him and complete dismissal of the boy’s property rights.

A group of young boys gambling with coins gathered from River Godavari in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. Don't miss the bunch of magnet rings they use ...
A group of young boys gambling with coins gathered from River Godavari in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. Don’t miss the bunch of magnet rings they use …

You can barely see past that tight huddle and what is going in there. It was strange to see the impeccable method they had developed overtime for gathering Re 1, 2, 5 and 10 coins thrown in the river by those bathing in it through those magnet rings and expert diving and swimming, then using those coins to gamble amongst themselves.

Carrying loads of water from community hand-pump for her house in Dumbriguda, Andhra Pradesh
Carrying loads of water from community hand-pump for her house in Dumbriguda, Andhra Pradesh
Washing utensils with cold water in winters and then carrying it home in Shivrajpur, Jharkhand
Washing utensils with cold water in winters and then carrying it home in Shivrajpur, Jharkhand
Barely 100 metres away from that girl washing utensils, these boys playing gully cricket in the same village. I have hardly ever came across girls playing or running around
Barely 100 metres away from that girl washing utensils, these boys playing gully cricket in the same village. I have hardly ever came across girls playing or running around
Ready with her broom to clean the house, all of three years old in Nagpur, Maharashtra!
Ready with her broom to clean the house, all of three years old in Nagpur, Maharashtra!

This are some common images that I feel also reinforce gender roles. I have observed girls industriously working like ants going about household chores – travelling long distances for water for household use and cooking, cleaning or washing utensils at community hand-pumps and boys playing and/or indulging in nefarious activities.

Older sibling (usually a girl) taking care of younger one in Shivrajpur, Jharkhand.
Older sibling (usually a girl) taking care of younger one in Shivrajpur, Jharkhand.

Lack of care facility, more often than not entrusts older siblings with the responsibility of younger ones. Particularly in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, I observed that almost every household had more than four-five children (very young in age). While both parents work in the field, the responsibility of taking care of younger ones falls on the older ones especially sisters, who may not be old enough to take care of either themselves or the younger ones, but they have to learn.

In case there is no one reliable at home to take care of children, mothers often bring them along at work sites, which is hazardous amongst equipments and heavy loads of stones etc. There is the absence of crèche facility and they often prefer that their children remain in the sight.

At a NREGA worksite in Bastar, Chattisgarh. Under the NREGA guidelines, a crèche at work site is mandatory, though I have never come across any.
At a NREGA worksite in Bastar, Chattisgarh. Under the NREGA guidelines, a crèche at work site is mandatory, though I have never come across any.

Amongst these, something heartening I saw in Ghanpur, Warangal that enthralled me. This is a private school where I saw young kids with equal gender participation learning English and rhymes, being taught by enthusiastic teachers which was quite refreshing 🙂

Learning... Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Learning… Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

India currently is home to largest number of child labourers in the world. Some 12 million children are out-of-school, as per UNICEF 2014 data and many more that goes unrecorded and have been pushed into bonded child labour, working in brick kilns, beedi-rolling, carpet weaving, commercial sexual exploitation, construction, fireworks and matches factories, mines, quarries, silk, synthetic gems…the list goes on.

*Copyright of all the images used in this blog rests with Akansha Yadav

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