All work and no play

Munna, Chotu, Choti, Bahadur. Post ban on child labour, will they disappear from our lives?Nasrin Sultana DelhiWhen my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry  'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep —William Blake, The Chimney Sweeper In 1986, the government of India heard the bereaved cry of millions of homeless, hungry and condemned children of India, and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was enacted. The Act prohibits children from engaging in activities considered hazardous to health and well-being. It regulates the working conditions of children employed in non-hazardous occupations. Plus, a National Policy on Child Labour was announced in 1987. The policy envisaged the National Child Labour Project (NCLP), a project-based action committee initiated to work in areas of high concentration of child labour. Twenty years later those tinkling bangles that women cherish, those crystal glasses that add charm to a dining table, those finely woven carpets, those fire crackers that illuminate the night sky on Deepawali, are still made by tiny hands. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act failed to wipe out even an iota of the social crime witnessed in every nook and corner of the country’s streets, homes, factories and sweatshops. Indeed, according to the 2001 census, India has 12.6 million child workers. Activists estimate the figure is more than 60 million, and they could be true. Meanwhile, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment rolled up its sleeves and passed a notification on October 11, 2006, following a High Court. The notification states that employment of children under 14 years as domestic workers or servants in dhabas, restaurants, hotels, motels, tea-shops, resorts, spas or other recreational centres is punishable with imprisonment for a term not less than three months, a fine of Rs 10,000 which may extend to Rs 20,000, or both.  Did anything change? Not really, as this reporter found out in the capital.Rekha, 13, from West Bengal, has been working as a domestic help in Delhi for the last two years. She has never seen her father, as he left her mother before she was born. Rekha was brought here by her aunty, mausi, as she is popularly known. Mausi gets children, especially girls, from Bengal, with the promise of two meals a day and clothes. These children are either abandoned by their families or sent to Delhi to earn some extra money. Rekha says most of the women in her village in Jalpaiguri are often sick because of constant childbirths, early marriage, non-stop hard work and hazardous working conditions. Mausi is a one-woman ‘domestic placement agency’. She brings the children from the villages, gets them a job as a domestic help, in a dhaba, a garage. In return, she gets a commission. The employers are happy they have got ‘easy slave labour’ without the hassles of placement agencies, sprawled all over Delhi, or legal niceties. Kanta, 28, came to Delhi from Darbhanga, in Bihar, as a 12-year old. Married to a carpenter, she has four children and is expecting another. Munshilal, her husband, says, “We believe in having more children. It means more mouths to feed, but the older ones can take care of the younger ones. There will be more employed people in my family. That means more money.”  Kanta’s two little children are working. The eldest one washes cups in a roadside tea stall.  Munshilal says he has not heard of any official notification banning child labour, “We have nothing to do with the government. Where are they when we go hungry? Our children will work, let’s see who stops us.”Shaheed Meezan, Director in the Labour and Employment Ministry, explains the framework of the notification, “There would be a transitional period where the earning member of the family would have to shift from a child to an adult. There would be no difference in the family income, even if the child worker, who sometimes is the sole bread winner, stops working.” He says that NCLP sets up rehabilitation centres in the districts, the rescued child workers are given education and vocational training, and Rs 100 per month. Midday meals are also arranged. Sister Youna, an activist of the Domestic Workers’ Forum, says, “Although the notification promises some good things, but its relevance has to be implemented. There are girls who work to support their younger siblings. And often, there is no rehabilitation.” she says girls working as domestic help are vulnerable, be it in the placement agencies or in the employer’s house. Besides, there are no fundamental rights, no fixed working hours, no sick leave or health facilities, no holidays or other benefits. Young girls, especially from poor tribal homes in Jharkhand, are picked up with false promises, and sold off to pimps and employers. The Domestic Workers’ Forum had recently rescued four girls who were being routinely raped. The four rapists are now in police custody. However, besides rehabilitation centres, the rescued child workers need trauma counselling and guidance centres because they are physically and mentally tortured. “Girls are kept in dark rooms and not allowed to talk to any outsider. Even we were not allowed to come near their doors or windows to exchange notes. The placement agency does not even feed us,” says Sushma, 16, working in Delhi for the last two years. she narrates how she was terribly treated by her employers, but when she complained to the agency, it did nothing. So she ran away and is now working in a girls’ hostel. However, a staffer at Parado Security and Placement Agency, in East of Kailash, South Delhi, refutes the allegations, “We never ill-treat the workers. We are just a medium, we get them a place to work and in return we get a bit of the salary.” The domestic helps widely preferred are between 10- and 15- year-olds, and are sold for a bargain, Rs 1,200 for untrained workers, Rs 1,700-1,800 for semi-trained and Rs 2000-2500 for a fully trained domestic child help, for a contract period of 11 months. As commission, the employer has to give Rs 3,500 to the placement agency; this was confirmed by an employee of Kavita Domestic Placement agency, in Lajpat Nagar. The price varies as the demand curve ends. Kalpana Sharma, 29, a housewife in Sriniwaspuri, says, “I always prefer a 10-to 14-year-old child. Once they grow old, I chuck them out. Older domestic helps cheat and often lie. Small children are too innocent to cheat. They also make less complaint.”Bhuvan, an activist, argues that no child likes to work as a labourer under any employer. “It’s like the choice between work and play.”  He narrates a terrible story: in 2004, in Gonda, in UP, Bachpan Bachao Andolan activists had gone to rescue minor girls working for a circus. All the activists were beaten up in front of the district magistrate. One of the girls managed to escape with a journalist. With her help others were rescued. Later, it was known that the 14-year-old had been raped continuously since the age of eight.Bhuvan tells the story of another girl working in the circus. The 16-year-old refused to even recognise her father. Later, when the activists rescued her, the girl confessed the circus owner had threatened to get her father beheaded if she revealed anything. The truth is there are millions of Bahadurs, Munnas, Chotus and Chotis surrounding our lives. Surely, the civil society in India is also an accomplice in this organised crime against the huge humanity of Indian childhood trapped in slavery. Will it change its ways after the ban on child labour? And post ban, will the government and the courts in the land be able to give the hardworking little ones their playful childhood back? Look around. The answer is out there, as stark as truth, blowing in the wind.