It’s been over three months, when a 10-year-old girl in India’s financial capital Mumbai made headlines.
Beaten blue and black, with bruised and burnt marks in hands and swollen red eyes, Rameshwari, a housemaid, alleged that her employer meted out her this fate.
The girl was ‘caught eating’ by her employer, a known Mumbai-based TV actress Urvashi Dhanorkar, who reportedly banged her head against the wall as a punishment.
Rameshwari says she was sent to Mumbai by her parents because her employer promised she will be provided education for looking after her kids in spare time.
Driven by poverty, the parents thought it to be the best possible way to educate their daughter only to know that she became the subject of violent physical abuse.
Her employer was booked under the Juvenile Justice Act and the Child Labour Act but was granted a bail later.
This was just an incident which caught media glare and became talk of the nation for a while because of her status of a domestic help of a known TV star.
Rameshwari’s case yet again highlighted the serious issue of child labour and their exploitation in the country, where 12 million children under the age of 14 are engaged in picking rags, working as domestic help, roadside tea stalls or in factories.
A similar situation must have provided Charles Dickens with inspiration to write ‘Oliver Twist’. But that was England over a century ago. While child labour is now an unheard thing in the UK, it’s still rampant in India, 62 years after it freed itself from the British rule.
When award-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ touched on child labourers, their plight and their struggle, it was only a tip of ice burg.
India has the largest number of poor children in Asia. Eighty per cent of its 400 million young are deprived of their childhood.
It’s a common sight on Delhi streets or on crossings children polishing shoes, selling books or magazines or just begging.
The children who should have been in schools are forced by circumstances to do odd jobs like making a living picking rags for half a dollar a day.
For four year-old Meena accompanying her mother to refuse piles in Delhi’s suburban Samaypur-Badli area is a routine.
She is there the entire day helping her mother rummage through rubbish heaps and pick pieces of plastic bags, tin cans or any other refuse that has a recycling value and can earn them a few Rupees, just about enough to buy two meals a day.
The vast refuse field provides her the playground where she makes friends and plays with the ilk of hers and falls asleep when tired of the day-long activities.
If not picking rags, they often work as labourers or domestic helps.
In India, child labour is a complex issue-- Rooting out child labour demands to look into other socio-economic issues as well.
Child labourers mainly come from very poor and large families. Quite often child labourers are the only source of income for the entire family thus joining the ranks of the 165 million child labourers in India.
In October 2006, a law prohibiting employing children in homes and in the hospitality industry came into effect. But the law is openly flouted.
Poor families argue that if their children are sent to school then who are going to earn bread and butter? For these children education is a distant dream that they share with nearly 40% of India’s illiterate population.
For instance, 14-year-old Neeru who cleans, mops, washes dishes and clothes in five houses at a colony in Indian capital New Delhi, says she does dream of going to school but has no other option but to continue working as a maid servant.
She is the only source of income for her ailing parents, including her stepmother, and four other siblings.
“If I stop working, there is no other income source to fall back upon,” says Neeru.
Moreover, she likes coming to work to “escape her stepmother’s verbal or sometimes physical abuse”.
Neeru is one such case. There are millions of other children who work in unsafe and life threatening environment of mining, stone quarries, cigarette-making and carpet-weaving factories or in tanneries, putting up with noxious fumes and hazardous chemicals.
Whichever environment they work in, child labourers are always at the receiving end.
Child labourers not only miss out on their childhood and education, they earn far less than their adult counterparts in spite of putting in same number of hours in a workplace.
The social evil has been prevalent for long and there are strict laws to prohibit it. However, experts say there are no stringent actions against those who employ child labour. They say there have been about ‘1,680 prosecutions but no conviction’ so far.
In a country with hundreds of millions of child labourers, effective policies and mammoth actions at a mass level are needed to address the issue at the grassroots level.
There are government and voluntary organisations working in the country to bring these marginalised kids to the mainstream by enrolling them in schools or providing them tailor-made education.
The central government has made education a right of all children till the age of 14, however getting these kids to school has been difficult.
In some parts of the country public-private partnerships are showing the way.
For instance, in India’s eastern Orissa and central Chattisgarh states some real efforts are being made to educate slum and tribal children.
A few months ago, the Chattisgarh government floated a scheme called "adopt a girl" to boost female literacy rates. Girls living in slums are given free textbooks and a school bag.
So far about 20,000 girls’ education has been funded. And it doesn’t cost much to fund a child, said the education minister of Chattisgarh, Brijmohan Agarwal.
He requested by saying, “if common people fund the education of even a single child, they will spend no more than six US dollars a year.”
In Orissa voluntary organisations are trying to attract more slum children by tailoring courses according to their needs. They are being given vocational training in sewing, weaving, pottery, and tribal arts which they are more familiar with and can turn them into money-generating hobbies.
Indian media, newspapers and TV channels, are also contributing their bit to highlight the poor conditions these hapless children are living in and their aspirations by running various campaigns, including facilitating education for them.
However, rooting out a scourge of this magnitude would need revolutionary efforts.
It requires a movement for which the over one billion plus nation turns up in arms to shake up the conscience of people who employ child labour, reinforce the ban, and free 165 million of the hapless children from the shackles of destitution of generations.