The loss of childhood

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

He was only 13, but felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Kabo (name changed) set out in search of work, hoping to supplement his parents’ income. One year and three jobs later, he yearns to go back home in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, and study at a school.

His story represents the plight of 4.35 million working children across India, and 5.5 million across the world, who are languishing in slavery. They either choose to work due to acute poverty or are trafficked and forced to work in the most hazardous forms of labour. Employed in brick kilns, carpet, embroidery and zari factories, beedi-making industry, mines and restaurants or forced to work for begging rings or as domestic labour, they miss out on a childhood and an education.

As child rights activists all over the world marked 2 December as the International Day of Abolition of Slavery, it is pertinent to highlight the plight of children such as Kabo.

“With the help of civil society across the world, the Global March is demanding for the inclusion of child slavery in the new development goals,” said Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and chairperson of the Global March against Child Labour. “At the national level, we once again call upon the Parliament of India, a country with the largest number of children trapped in child labour and slavery, to pass the long-pending Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill to ban all forms of child labour until 14 years of age and hazardous child labour until 18 years of age.”

Here is Kabo’s story.

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 When I was 13, I left home in search of work. My parents work as daily wage labourers at a farm in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. My father earns about 250 a day, while my mother gets 150. We neither have land nor a house of our own. Being the eldest of six children — five sons and a daughter — I thought it was time to help my parents raise my siblings. Some of the boys in my village, who were of a similar age, had gone away for two-three years, earned some money and came back. I thought I could do the same.

I decided to leave home when a local woman offered to take me to New Delhi and get me a job. However, I was taken to Panipat instead, where I worked at a poultry farm for three months. I went there with three of my distant relatives, who were all older and married. We worked from 8 am to 10 pm, fed the chicken, gave them water and vaccinated them.

Initially, I was promised 6,000 just like everyone else. One day, the labourers refused to go to work because nobody was getting paid. Some of them got drunk and the owners beat them up. I stood in a corner and watched. Fear gripped me. Later that day, while some people stayed back, the others went to work. The owner walked up to me and asked, “What do you plan to do?” I was scared of being beaten up and proceeded to work.

The next month, everybody was paid 5,500, but I wasn’t paid a penny. When I enquired about my wages, the owner shooed me away. So, I ran away from the farm along with my relatives.

One day, members of the Bonded Labourers Liberation Front raided the farm and rescued the other kids. With their help, the activists traced me and my relatives. As a result, I got 10,800, which is still short of what I was promised in the beginning. And I am yet to receive the compensation of 20,000 promised by the state.

Back home, life went on as usual. While my parents struggled to make ends meet, my siblings attended school. I was denied admission by the school authorities because I did not have any id proof or certificate. I used to sit at home or roam around the village wondering what I could do to help my family.

One fine day, while I was playing outside my house, a local seth asked me whether I’d like to go with him to Jaipur for work. I needed the money to support my family. But I refused at first because a boy from my village had told me that the seth used to thrash the children.

“Do you beat up kids?” I asked him. “No,” he said. My father was unwell that day and had gone to the hospital, while my mother was at work. I left the same day without informing them and was accompanied by seven or eight children from neighbouring villages.

Once I reached Jaipur, I tried calling my parents but was unable to get through at first. The next day, they called back and I told them about my whereabouts. I wanted to speak to them at length, but the seth did not let me.

For the next three months, I worked along with 15 other children — two were
of my age, the others must have been
15 or 16 years old — at a zari workshop that was run out of a rented house. We worked from 8 am to 2.30 am and were served two meals a day — one at 3 pm and the other at 3 am.

Initially, the seth helped me understand how to go about my work, but within 4-5 days, he started reprimanding me if I made a mistake. Soon, the beatings followed. We were expected to work faster than machines and if we failed to do so, we were beaten up. He would first strike our shoulders, then our backs and our heads. We were not allowed to step out or get in touch with our families.

Over the next month, everybody started fleeing one by one. Finally, I did too, leaving behind five other children. I decided to rush to the nearest bus stand, but a man accosted me. He seemed to care for me. He took me to his dhaba and gave me some tea. As soon as I said that I’d like to leave, he forced me to stay back and chop onions. I worked there without pay for three months. When I asked for my wages, he asked me, “What work have you done? You have only eaten here.” I was asked to foot the bill of 2,500 for the food I had eaten during my time at the dhaba.

Finally, I managed to get to Kunda bus station, where a policeman offered to help. He bought me dinner and helped me get on a bus to New Delhi.

I am now waiting to go back to Jaipur, testify at the police station and head back home. This time, I hope that the school authorities will not deny me admission.

As told to Nupur Sonar

[email protected]

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