Monday, August 07, 2006

Why the ban was necessary - 1

Mr Chaurasia is an old man. His old man's voice shakes a little as he tells me the story of Ashraf. He was seven years old when they found him, but he'd been only six when he was brought to live in the household of a certain IAS officer. Officially, the little boy's only task was to 'play' with the toddler of the house. A sort of companion. Except that soon, the baby was going to a creche, and Ashraf was washing dishes and playing nursemaid, in the evenings. Everyday, the toddler was given a glass of milk. Maybe twice a day. Maybe thrice. One day, the household baby left some milk undrunk, in the glass. Perhaps this was what happened everyday. Perhaps it went into the sink everyday. But that one day, Ashraf - the six/seven-year-old nursemaid-cum-servant boy Ashraf who'd probably never tasted milk since the day he was weaned - decided to drink that leftover milk. And was caught doing so, by the lady of the house. 

What followed is fairly commonplace. Some slapping around, some kicking; a rod/chimta/iron kitchen implement was taken from the stove and the boy was branded with it. When the IAS officer returned from work, he did his little bit to teach the boy a lesson he wouldn't forget. The result was that the next day, Ashraf was burning with fever. Perhaps, the IAS chap panicked. Perhaps, they just didn't want him anymore. The boy's family was sent for and Ashraf was taken away. When they saw what had happened, the family was enraged. His mother went to the polie station. A complaint was not filed. Eventually, Mr Chaurasia's organisation - Bachpan Bachao Andolan - was contacted. They created a ruckus. Went to the police. Went to the NHRC. Ruffled feathers. 

 Ashraf's story was not remarkable. Is not remarkable. It is played out in our cities and homes all the time. But what made it significant was that the NHRC and the BBA began to lobby with the central government, to issue orders that no government employee may employ a child (less than 14 years of age) as a domestic worker. It didn't happen easily. It took two years. Many states agreed to issue such notifications before the centre agreed. But agree, it did. That notification - it doesn't mean much in numerical terms. Government jobs account for a negligible percentage of the working population. But it accounts for a stand. A beginning. More than a decade ago, the government conceded, through that order, that children should not be employed in households. That it is not safe. That the risks are too large. The work neverending. The exploitation uncontrollable. Having made this concession, what prevented the government from passing a law along the same lines for the rest of the country? Surely the government did not believe that government servants alone are capable of brutalisation? However, that is a question of the past. The last week changed all that. 

The government, once, was pressurized into taking a stand. Children are no longer permitted to undertake domestic work - dishwashing, sweeping-swopping, child-care, elderly-care, laundry, ironing, cooking, etc. I don't yet know whether or not domestic work will now be included in the list of occupations that are forbidden to child labourers, legally. But for now, it is enough that the ban has been put into place. Now, to the implementation of it. Experience should tell us that that will be where the real battle lies. Mr Chaurasia laughs, mirthlessly, when he tells stories of trying to track down boys and girls who've been trafficked, or lured under false pretenses from poor tribal areas. 

He says, "Employers are afraid - they will be orphaned for the lack of a slave.They even take their dogs out for a walk but not their maidservants. They're scared that if they might be lured away with better offers. They don't even allow their servants to step outside the house. Neighbours sometimes witness the cruelty and call us but they don't give testimony. They have to live in that area, next to those people." BBA activists would hear reports of abuse and would hang around the neihgbourhood all day, hoping to meet the boy or girl, to ask whether he/she'd like to go home. "We'd wait at the milk booth, near vegetable vendors, parks... not one glimpse! They just weren't allowed to step out." 

 Shanti's experience confirms this. Now fifteen, about a year ago, she went from her village in Jharkhand to the capital, Ranchi. She'd studied until the 5th and wanted to study further. "But the school had 110 children and no teacher. I dropped out. There was one Aunty who took me to Ranchi, promising that I'd get to study there. But I ended up working. Only working. They also had a two-year-old kid. I did all the housework and took care of the child. There was no money. No clothes. Sushila - the aunty - she would beat me. Gave me leftovers to eat. My cousin brother was staying in a hostel in Ranchi. After six months of this work, I got in touch with him and he brought me back to the village." Shanti was lucky. Also, she wasn't as young and as vulnerable as some of the others are. People who are taken to different states where they don't know the language, don't know a single soul in town, don't know who to turn to for help. When they do not return for months on end, when no money is sent home either, the parents come looking. But do not know where to look. 

There are no records, no contracts, no addresses. Sometimes, even the children's names are changed. The children themselves are not given any money. Not even enough to make a phone call home. They certainly aren't given education enough to write home. If, by some stroke of luck, the children are found, they're not permitted to meet their family. Last week, I spoke to a few of these children. Each one had a story. A disturbing one. I am letting them speak for themselves.


Aparna said...

I have seen a couple of such cases, and I agree, the ban was/is necessary.

Annie Zaidi said...

aparna: now, to the implementation.

sophie said...

at least there is a law to
implement thank God -
it's a start - and better late
than never.
These stories are devastating-
thankyou for a well written
compassionate post:)

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