Signs of change

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

A relatively vigilant administration and the initiatives taken by a non-governmental organisation in the wake of the death of Naushad, a child worker at Ramanagaram, lead to a lull in the recruitment of child workers in the silk taluks of Karnataka.

CHILDREN'S Day this year marked the first anniversary of Naushad's death. A child worker at a silk reeling unit at Ramanagaram on the outskirts of Bangalore, Naushad died in a hospital in the city where he was admitted with extensive burn injuries (Frontline, January 19, 2001). While his employer Dadu Fayaz insisted that the boy had committed suicide, local people claimed that it was a case of murder. Nearly a year after the incident, the police filed a charge-sheet against Fayaz in October 2001. A civil case has also been filed against him under the Child Labour Prevention and Rehabilitation Act, 1986. If convicted under this Act, he would have to pay Rs.20,000 as compensation and undergo a prison sentence. Fayaz is absconding.

The death of 12-year-old Naushad brought to public attention the nature and extent of child labour in Karnataka's silk industry. Naushad was the eldest of the seven children of Shaffiullah and Kamarunissa of Yarab Nagar. He joined Fayaz's silk unit at the age of nine as a "cocoon cook". He was paid Rs.15 a day for work that extended up to 11 hours. Owing to constant exposure to steam and boiling water, he was not be able to fold his hands. According to his relatives and former co-workers, Naushad was locked up in a dingy room in the factory for a fortnight as punishment for not having been regular in coming to work. Akbar, a co-worker who during that period smuggled in food for him, reported that the boy was beaten regularly. According to him, on November 12 Naushad asked for permission to go home for Id-ul-Fitr but was thrashed. On November 13, he was admitted to the Government Victoria Hospital in Bangalore with 79 per cent burn injuries. He died on November 14.

Local officials say that securing a conviction in this case will act as a deterrent on other factory owners who employ children. But after the initial flurry of activity, the case seemed to be caught in red tape. According to K. Doraswamy, Additional Public Prosecutor (Ramanagaram), a charge-sheet has been filed against the employer and the mother of Naushad as the boy's dying declaration incriminated both. The charge-sheet was filed in the Bangalore District Sessions Court on October 29 under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (attempted murder).

However, according to activists of the Movement for Alternatives and Youth Awareness (MAYA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works in the area of child rights, the factory owners are trying to hush up the case. His mother said that Naushad had committed suicide as he was not allowed to go out of his house on the occasion of Id. There is also some discrepancy between the hospital and police records regarding Naushad's age. It was recorded as 12 in the registers of the Victoria Hospital. But the police declared that the entry was a mistake and that the boy was 17, which was the age recorded in the post-mortem report. However, according to school records that MAYA managed to obtain, he was 12.

AROUND 2.5 lakh children in the age-group of 6-14 work in thousands of silk units in Ramanagaram, Channapatna, Magadi and Kanakapura taluks of Karnataka. The State is the largest producer of silk in India. According to the Bangalore Silk Exchange, Karnataka accounted for about 75 per cent of the total quantity of silk produced in the country in 1999-2000. The owners of silk units prefer child workers as they do not dare to complain and will work for low wages. The daily wage of a child worker is Rs.15-20 whereas an adult worker gets Rs.45-50.

MAYA launched an active campaign against child labour in Ramanagaram after Naushad's death. On November 20, 2000, representatives of MAYA met the Superintendent of Police and the Deputy Commissioner (D.C.) of Bangalore Rural District to discuss the action being taken in Naushad's case. On November 25, a public meeting was held in Ramanagaram where members of the Child Labour Eradication Committee submitted a memorandum to the D.C. The meeting was attended by women and child workers. They spoke about the hardships they faced in their workplaces and demanded the government's intervention. The D.C. said that the district level task force committee would take up the matter.

MAYA provided the district administration with data on child labour, including the names of child labourers, their parents, employers, and so on. The members of MAYA claim that the list somehow made its way to the factory owners who used it to turn the local people against the NGO. To clear the confusion, MAYA held a meeting with an association of employers and reelers on January 22, 2001. According to the members of MAYA, the meeting was inconclusive as the local MLA sided with the owners.

IT has been an uphill task for MAYA and the local volunteers working with it to fight against the factory owners who have political backing. But members of MAYA and the local officials admit that the child labour situation has improved since Naushad's death. According to Labour Inspector (Ramanagaram) R. Krishnappa, the factory owners have not made any fresh recruitment of children this year. The change is owing to more than one factor. First, according to the local officials, the sericulture industry itself is facing a crisis. According to Dada Rao, the Tahsildar of Ramanagaram, around 20 per cent of the taluk's silk units have closed down since January owing to poor market conditions.

Secondly, the Karnataka government has vested the district authorities with quasi-judicial powers to collect Rs.20,000 as compensation from those who employ children below the age of 15. The factory owners had till then avoided paying such compensation by ensuring that they were not convicted. The recovery of compensation is not subject to conviction any more. Under the new procedure, the Deputy/Assistant Labour Commissioner will issue a certificate of recovery of compensation after holding an inquiry into any case filed by the Labour Inspector against an employer. Once the certificate is issued, the D.C. will recover the compensation amount as arrears of land revenue. The money will then go to the corpus fund that has been set up to rehabilitate child labourers.

Thirdly, since volunteers from MAYA and the local women's federation are working closely with the children, the owners fear that news of any fresh recruitment will reach the police easily.

The lull in recruitment, whether it is caused by the fear of law or a slump in the silk industry, has come as a blessing for child labourers as well as those who are working towards eradicating child labour. According to Ratna, a volunteer in MAYA's Child Development Centre (CDC), after the Naushad case it has become easier to take the children to rehabilitation centres such as the CDC. The hostel that was set up at Ramanagaram by MAYA for child workers in November this year has come as a boon. Within a week of its establishment 18 children joined the hostel. According to Anil, a volunteer with MAYA, more children are expected to join it after Ramzan. MAYA aims to put 50 children in the hostel.

The hostel was built as part of the National Child Labour Project (NCLP). Ramanagaram has a state-run hostel for child workers but, owing to paucity of funds, it is being run as a day-care centre from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. According to Krishnappa, the day-care-centre model will not work because after the hostel closes for the day the children would go back to their homes and their parents would send them to work. He said that the factories often shifted their location to ensure that the children would not be traced.

The Ramanagaram "hostel" accommodates about 100 children; of them, about 50 are regulars. According to one teacher, the children come around lunch time and disappear after food. He said: "Without a residential set-up, this is a losing battle."

The biggest hitch in the rehabilitation process, say the volunteers of MAYA, is the shortage of schools in these areas. Recently, MAYA conducted a campaign to assess what was wrong with the education set-up and to apprise the district administration of the situation. The campaign revealed that though the villages in Ramanagaram taluk have at least one school each, most of them have classes only up to Standard VI. There are private schools but they charge high fees. To reach the nearest government high school in Ramanagaram, children would have to cross the railway track. The parents feel that it is risky for children to do so.

Most of these schools are housed in dilapidated buildings and the teachers do not turn up for work regularly. These factors have convinced the parents that sending their children to school is a waste of time and money. One volunteer of MAYA said that her main task was to convince the parents that sending their children to school was better then sending them to factories. "Since Naushad's death, the parents are worried about the children's safety in the factories. Now they are more willing to send their children to schools, provided they are taught properly there." About 500 children have been enrolled in schools as a result of MAYA's efforts. However, Ramanagaram's two main industries, silk and beedi, are potential magnets for child labourers.

ALTHOUGH the situation on the child labour front has improved since Naushad's death, there is still a long way to go before the problem is eradicated. Sreeja, a member of MAYA, says that only stricter laws and their proper implementation would bring about a lasting change. According to Krishnappa, if the compensation amount is brought down to Rs.1,000 for a first offence and gradually increased if the offence is repeated, it will be easier to convict erring factory owners. According to him, 21 cases relating to the employment of child labour are pending with the local police. He also pointed out that it was often difficult to identify the offenders since the power connection to the unit and its registration are often in different names.

Krishnappa said that these units come under the ambit of the Factories Act 1948 and ought to be monitored by the Factories Inspector. However, according to Factories Inspector Ravindra Rathode, the small silk units do not come under the Factories Act. According to him, for an industrial unit to be deemed as a factory it should have at least 10 workers and a power connection or 20 workers if there is no power connection. Most of the reeling units have less than 10 workers. Since the existence of child workers is kept as a secret, it is difficult to determine whether a unit has sufficient number of workers to qualify as a factory. MAYA claims that if the units are brought under the Factories Act, it will mean stricter regulation and a more organised working environment.

In the meantime, MAYA, along with local volunteers and the district administration, is trying to mobilise the community against the practice of child labour by conducting awareness campaigns. According to MAYA, it is not possible to fight child labour without the concerted effort of the community and the administration at the district and State levels.

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