The Working Lives of Children: Beyond Economics and Poverty

This World Day Against Child Labour, the conversation should be about what it’s going to take to protect working children from abuse and violence.

Child Labourers. Credit: Shome Basu

Child Labourers. Credit: Shome Basu

The gali is deserted; no children walk back from school, or gather for a game of cricket. From inside the brick-and-cement makans, the sound of the power loom is unrelenting khat khat, khat khat, khat khat.

Iqlaak, 13, has grown up with that sound. As a 6-year old, he would sit in a corner, in the gap between two looms in his house, just enough room to fit his body and a sari on which he would stick sitaras (jewels). By the age of 9, when he was tall enough, he graduated to deftly loading the thread and operating the machine. Chewing tobacco became a habit – something to dull the monotony, to get through the 12-hour days. The only respite was power cuts. That’s when the machines were silent.

“My father told me: What’s the point of going to school? You have to run the house, take care of the family. You can do that only if you learn the work now. There was no question of doing anything else,” says Iqlaak. His friend, Nabeel, 15, adds, “Work was never a choice. What can you choose at that age, when you don’t know anything else?”

Work as part of growing up

Growing up in a basti (neighbourhood) of power loom weavers in Varanasi, children start working with their families as soon as their fingers are nimble. Bound by financial pressures, and grappling with a deep sense of isolation and powerlessness, many have run away to big cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Ahmedabad. “The looms are so noisy. There’s no room for thought. The sound echoes in my head even after it stops, ” says Nabeel.

Data shared by the Ministry of Home Affairs indicates that over 3.25 lakh children went missing between 2011 and June 2014 – an average of one lakh every year. Alone and unsupervised, living on the streets, working in warehouses or dhabas, children are fair game for trafficking and exploitation.

For other children like Sahil, 13, who works at a garbage dumping ground, drugs bring a measure of respite from the work.

Sahil started going to the dumping ground at the age of 11. Waking up at 4 am, when the garbage trucks begin rolling in, he would make his way to the top of the kachre ka pahad (mountain of garbage). Getting to the top early meant having the most to choose from, to collect whatever was fetching the highest price in the scrap market – plastic bags, bottles, iron bolts, hospital syringes.

By mid-morning, he’d return home where his mother and two younger siblings, 9 and 7, working seven hours a day, would sort through the garbage, to be sold later that evening.

In the two years since he started working, Sahil has seen bulldozers overturning, maiming and burying children who ride up on them, fires starting from a build-up of methane from the waste, rampant drug use, knifings and cuts by glass through his chappals. “I once saw a boy’s head being cut open. I couldn’t go back for four days after that,” he says.

But the most difficult part for Sahil is the stench – it clings to your skin even after you have left the dumping ground, he says. Sahil goes to the ground every day with a group of friends with whom he then spends his evening, friends with whom he tried ‘button’ (a drug) at the age of 12. “Everyone does something or the other, otherwise it’s not possible to do this work without it, ” he says.

Work and abuse go side by side

Every 11th child in India is working, according to an analysis of the 2011 census data by CRY. For millions of these children, work is a place of brutality, abuse and violence. It is where children are compelled to work in hazardous conditions – sorting through garbage, in brick kilns, rolling bidis (cigarettes).  A 2007 study on Child Abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development corroborates this. The study found that the percentage of working children reporting physical abuse in the family environment or by others including employers was 58.79%, out of which 52.70% were boys and 47.30% were girls.

In November 2015, the government circulated amendments to the Child Labour Bill, 2012 pending in the parliament. The Bill prohibits employment of children under 14 years in any occupation, except in cases where a child ‘helps his family after school hours or in fields or home-based work.’ The loophole this creates is highly troubling in assessing a child’s work in a family setting that will be extremely difficult and in many ways, will continue to perpetuate supply chains that use children as labour, now in the guise of family work.

This World Day Against Child Labour, the conversation should not be just about economics and poverty. It should be rather about the working lives of these children and what it’s going to take to protect them and their futures.

Deepika Khatri is Training and Impact Specialist (Government Partnerships) at Aangan, a non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations.