Poor children in a rich State

Published : Oct 18, 1997 00:00 IST

Punjab prospers but the blight of child labour remains, as the State fails to address the issue of compulsory primary education.

NINE-YEAR-OLD Ram Kumar spends 12 hours a day wheeling his cycle, loaded with food, through the brick-kilns at Rudke in Ludhiana district. Most of his customers are children who work in the kilns, helping their parents knead clay to the right consistency or mould it into shape to be moved to the furnace. These children, who sometimes work through the night, receive no wages at all, except when their parents give them a rupee or two.

In the summer Ram Kumar sells kulfi, which provides the toiling children a moment's respite from the searing waves of heat generated by the furnaces. In the winter, his spicy, hot papads are in demand. The son of a migrant labourer from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, Ram Kumar has a turnover of some Rs. 80 a day. He is usually left with a few rupees of profit, most of which he turns over to his father, who also works at the kilns. Ram Kumar, like most children who work the kilns, has never been to school. He says somewhat wistfully that he would have liked to learn to read and write.

Punjab's brick-kiln workers are just a small segment of the hundreds of thousands of child labourers who, by their very existence, debunk the myths that the wealth of India's second richest State is founded on virile entrepreneurship and fair play. By working endless hours for next to no money, children provide a pliant, cheap pool of labour that serves to keep adult wages down. There are no precise data on the extent of child labour in Punjab. The 1995 Statistical Abstract of Punjab admits to the existence of 1,79,405 workers below the age of 14, but this figure appears understated. One current estimate puts the number of children in the age group not attending shcool in 1995 in Punjab at 1.64 million.

The presence of child workers in Punjab is so pervasive that the phenomenon ceases to register. Someone like five-year-old Jamuna is at the bottom rung. Jamuna, her brother Vicky, their friend Bahadur, and his sister Suneeta pick up trash left by bus and car passengers waiting at the Morinda railway crossing. These children, like many of those born to the inter-State migrant labour families that criss-cross Punjab in search of work, are not very sure of their geographical origins. "We used to do this work in Chandigarh until two months ago," Jamuna says. The foursome sells the collected scrap to a small-sector recycling plant in the town. Plastic refuse, which goes for Rs. 13 a kg, is the pick of the garbage, but it is difficult to collect enough. Glass bottles, the children say, are more easy to find, but more dangerous: Vicky's leg bears a deep, infected gash from scrabbling around in broken glass. On a good day, the four children together make Rs. 20.

Other child workers at the Morinda crossing are more firmly enmeshed in relatively organised economic activity. Most of these slightly better-off children are from Punjabi Dalit families. The State has the country's highest percentage of Scheduled Caste residents, cutting across religious lines, and many of these communities remain oppressed and marginalised despite the State's prosperity.

Manjit Singh, who sells screw-driver sets at the crossing, is typical of the Punjabi Dalit children put to work. Now 13, he has been selling screw-drivers for over a year. The cheap sets are bought from a trader in Morinda and Manjit Singh sells them to passengers and drivers at the railway crossing for a two-rupee premium. His turnover ranges between Rs. 60 and Rs. 80 a day, and the amount of Rs. 15-20 he brings home was adequate to prompt his parents to take him out of school. "It was boring anyway," says Manjit Singh, unwilling to acknowledge his family's poverty, "at least this way I make a few rupees, instead of wasting time getting whacked by teachers."

Many Punjabi Dalit families this correspondent spoke to had chosen unpaid apprenticeship as a form of work for their children. At Hirran village, 13-year-old Kulbir and the slightly older but uncertain of his age, Inderjeet, work at a two-wheeler mechanic's shop. Their ustad (master) had left on a drinking spree when this correspondent visited the shop.

Inderjeet, who had been working at the shop for two years, has acquired enough knowhow to be entrusted with the work, but receives only one meal as payment for a 10 or 12-hour day. Having attended school for four years, Inderjeet says he wanted to learn a craft. The younger Kulbir agrees. Although he is so far entrusted with only the washing and cleaning of two-wheeler parts, he hopes eventually to be taught the trade and start his own shop.

Next to the mechanic's store is Ajit Singh's tailoring establishment. Much of the work is done by nine-year-old Satbir Singh, another school dropout. The son of a Mazhabi agricultural worker, Satbir works unpaid, but his father is glad not to have the burden of an additional mouth to feed. "In five years," says the master tailor, "he'll have learned enough to make a living."

THE apex of the child labour hierarchy in Punjab, however, is at the factories in Ludhiana that form Punjab's industrial backbone. Kailash Kumar, a 15-year-old at the Jitender Steel Works, migrated eight months ago, from Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, along with several others from his village. He spends 12 hours a day hammering thin steel tubes into fancy hub caps for Maruti cars; he may take a half-hour lunch break, provided he makes up the lost time. The noise in the steel works is deafening and shards of metal fly off the raw steel pipes in all directions. Jitender Singh, who owns the plant, lost his thumb in an accident here, but sees no reason to provide his employees with any form of safety equipment. Although the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 technically only bars the employment of children under 14 in dangerous industries like this one, international covenants that India has not ratified have sought to raise that age to 16. Kailash Kumar's employment at wages of Rs. 1,000, well under the minimum wage, explains why child labour is attractive. Children come cheaper than adults, do not join unions (for which they must be 16) and do not ask for benefits due to them under the law. Children such as 12-year-old Ajay, whose father works as a sweeper at the government hospital at Harike, can be employed in a textile unit packing shirts into boxes for Rs. 300 a month - wages that would be unacceptable for adults.

Nearby, at Jain Udhay Fabrics off the Grand Trunk Road, a suave manager who briefs me on their multi-crore business droned on about his company: five plants in Ludhiana, five branches nationwide, an office in Germany, exports to several countries. He did not, however, let me visit the plant. Just two workers this correspondent spoke to, however, made evident what conditions were like in the hosiery and knitting trades, possibly Ludhiana's biggest business. Joginder, from Basti in Uttar Pradesh, is 13. Although his employment in a non-hazardous job is technically legal, his terms of service are not.

Working 12-hour days for Rs. 1,000 a month, Joginder puts together some top fabric brands in the country, including JU's, which is regularly advertised in premier national publications. Joginder has received no permission to work from the factory inspector, a legal requirement. Nor does he have a birth certificate or other legal requirements to be employed. His friend Ram Dayal from Patna district in Bihar has been sick for three months. "I can't take time off for treatment," he says, "someone else will get my job."

Unscrupulous labour practices lie at the heart of the 'Ludhiana miracle' and child workers, with little legal or social protection, bear the brunt of these practices. The State appears unconcerned with bringing about change. Discussing a recent Supreme Court judgment mandating compensation for each child labourer with this correspondent, one labour inspector said on condition of anonymity, "We've been told quite clearly that we must lay off businessmen. Since we started acting on the Court order, we've located less than a 100 children in non-hazardous industries, and none in hazardous ones." Anyone, even on their first visit to Ludhiana's factories, would soon discover these figures to be preposterous. The evidence this correspondent found showed that the conditions were far from improving, despite Ludhiana's growing prosperity.

The vulnerability of child workers in all sectors has been underlined by the recent murder of a domestic worker, Deepak, in Malout. On September 11, the young Garhwali boy was shot dead in the home of his landed employers, Manohar and Sushma Lal. The local police first attempted to suggest that the death was caused by burglars who had broken into the house, accepting at face value a dying note supposedly left by Deepak. This neat story ignored the fact that Deepak was illiterate, and that he had been killed with his employer's own gun, an unlikely weapon for armed robbers. Protests led by the local CPI(M) unit, however, forced action. The police subsequently arrested Sushma and her close relative Yash Pal. The two, officials now say, are believed to have murdered the child when he stumbled on evidence of their affair. But in scores of other cases, where there is no organised political intervention, there is no action at all. CPI(M) leader Chandra Shekhar says, "Dozens of murders of domestic servants, rapes of maids and even truck cleaning boys, and the killings of child workers in factories go unreported."

IS the suppression of child labour by law the answer? The brick-kilns at Rudke have recently been paralysed as a result of environmental pollution notices issued by the State Government after Supreme Court litigation. The powerful kiln owners association went on strike to protest the environment notices, shutting down most units. Yet for obvious reasons, labour leaders support the reopening of the kilns.

Brick-kiln worker Sukhwinder Singh's case illustrates the layers of problems that must be addressed if children are to be kept out of the workplace. His children, Chamkaur Singh, Avtar Singh and Jagsir Singh, all study in school but work with their father each evening to supplement the family income. Although educated, their father sees the kilns as the only real source of income. "I need my children to help me do this job as I get older," he says. "Otherwise I simply can't finish making the 1,000 bricks I must complete to earn Rs. 32." All three children are unlikely to continue studying into secondary school. If Sukhwinder Singh was paid the official minimum wage, he would more easily be able to continue sending his children to school.

Most critically, universal compulsory primary education must be made the unequivocal target of state policy: both parents and prospective employers must be made to understand the need for children to attend school. Punjab's case underlines the fact that rising incomes and prosperity do not by themselves eradicate child labour. A specific problem of Punjab is that children of the large force of the migrant workers are excluded from the school system by barriers of caste, language and cost. Tarsem Jodhan, an energetic young Left leader who works among migrant and backward caste agricultural workers in Punjab, said, "We must certainly get children out of work and into schools. This will not only be not good for the children, but for their parents, because every child worker means an unemployed adult."

The chances of meaningful state investment to improve education and regulate the workplace, however, are thin. The worst kinds of class and regional chauvinism shape the response of mainstream politics in Punjab, while the plethora of human rights groups in the State are yet to place poverty and illiteracy on their agenda. Rights for poor children in this rich State, it is evident, are a long way off.

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