“Farhan Khan, an Afghan refugee, starts work early, before the sun has risen over Peshawar in Northwest Pakistan. After a meagre breakfast of tea and dry nan, he starts sprinkling water on the mound of red clay. This clay he will mix with his bare hands and form into bricks. Farhan works for 13 hours every day.
Farhan is four years old.
“A nine year old boy, Sagar, is sacrificed, to Goddess Kali, by his superstitious grandfather on Diwali night. The old man had hoped that the ritual would ensure the safe return of his missing son. While the whole country was celebrating the ‘Festival of Lights’, the light is snuffed out of young Sagar’s life forever.”
The first piece is part of a feature which appeared in a recent issue of Time magazine while the second is a news report from Dumka, Jharkhand, published in The Telegraph dated 20th November.
If you think the events in the life of Farhan and Sagar are isolated incidents, happening to the citizens of a war ravaged country or to the denizens of a
state which is still caught in the throes of an existential trauma you are quite
mistaken. The plight of the majority of children, the most vulnerable section of the society, is miserable wherever you look - especially in our part of the world.
Take the case of Subbu. He is employed in a factory in Sivakasi which manufactures firecrackers. He works with hazardous chemicals whose toxic dust he inhales day after day. He works for ten to twelve hours and earns not much more than the price of a hamburger.
Or think about Zaheer who works in a glass factory in Ahmedabad. It has furnaces where the temperature rises to more than 1400 degrees Celsius. And what about Venkat who rolls beedis the whole day and will in all likelihood end up with tuberculosis by the time he reaches twenty. And then there is Meena who spends the entire day in a carpet factory on the outskirts of Lucknow, her dainty fingers moving mechanically hour after hour.
Are these names too exceptions? No they are not. Just look around: the rag pickers who fight with dogs and pigs for pieces of scrap, the bhutru in the dhaba who gets thrashed even for spilling water, the girl who works as a maid in your neighbour’s house and is beaten for expressing the desire to learn the alphabet, the shoe shine boy in the train, the newspaper hawker at a busy traffic junction of a metropolis city and many, many more. They work for more than 12 hours a day without a break or holiday and get paid only half or one third of what an adult is paid. And where does this money go, certainly not to the child who gives his sweat and toil.
It is estimated that about 5.5 crore children in India between the ages of 5 and 14 are labourers. India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labourers in the world - one in every four working children in the world is an Indian!
Even though a Supreme Court ruling in 1996 declared that no child under 14 should be allowed to work in hazardous industries no one cares a damn. This law is merrily flouted.
I don’t know how many of you are aware that UNO has pronounced Ten children’s rights. These are:
1. Right to be loved.
2. Right to nutritious food and good health.
3. Right to education.
4. Right to entertainment and proper physical growth.
5. Right to get his/her nationality in his/her name.
6. Right to get other’s attention in distress.
7. Right to relief in cases of natural calamities.
8. Right to nurture and develop their inherent skills and abilities so as to be a useful member of the society.
9. Right to nurture humanitarian values and goodwill with others.
10. Right to guard against forces dividing the country on caste, religion and other grounds.
How many of the Indian children can claim to enjoy these rights? It is pathetic that even after more than five decades of our country’s independence the majority of the Indian children have to struggle for even such basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, let alone think about such ‘luxuries’ like ‘developing inherent skills and abilities’ and ‘nurturing humanitarian values’.
Some time back I had the occasion to interact with juvenile delinquents in Rourkela Jail. I spent around two hours with them. I chatted with them, I told them stories and we even talked about the ‘crime’ for which they had been sent to jail. Most of them were in the age group of eight to fifteen.
Quite a few had been convicted of petty crimes while three of them were facing charges of murder.
The more I talked to them the more I was convinced that there was nothing abnormal about them. They were as normal as any child - they had the same dreams, the same hopes - they loved Amitabh Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan. They enjoyed singing and dancing, flying kites and playing cricket. They wanted to grow up and take care of their parents. And all of them wanted to go to school and study.
So what had turned them into criminals? A callous, apathetic and insensitive society. A system which refused to treat them as human beings.
Every 14th November we celebrate Children’s Day with great fanfare all over the country. Leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and other celebrities visit slums, orphanages, jails. They distribute sweets, clothes, toys, give profound speeches, deliver sermons on the duties and responsibilities of the citizens of tomorrow. And then they go back to their cocoons of affluence and luxury leaving the children to rot.
Kids can’t revolt, they can’t take to the streets and most important they can’t vote. So naturally no one bothers about them. They can be used, misused and abused with impunity.
So then what is the solution? Obviously, there are no quick answers.
However, I firmly believe that it is illiteracy which is the root cause of poverty and exploitation. If the poor could be given education, made to understand their rights and responsibilities they wouldn’t subject their children to such torture. If they were educated they would realise the importance of family planning and small family norms. With lesser mouths to feed there would be less reason for children being sent out to contribute to the family kitty. If the poor were educated they would understand the value of education and send their children to school rather then sending them to hell holes to earn money.
The Lok Sabha has recently passed a bill making education a fundamental right. This is certainly a positive step, but is it alone enough? Will it yield the desired results. This is a question which I leave to this august gathering to debate.
Now the question comes do we, the privileged and the enlightened members of the society, have a role to play? Of course we do. We are the fortunate ones who have been given an education and it is high time we share this knowledge with those who have been denied the option of acquiring it.
Each One Teach One
Some time back the Government had launched a literacy programme called ‘Each One Teach One’. Even then I had liked the idea immensely, though it had failed to take off. I think this campaign should be re-launched - not by the Government but by us, you and I, if we consider ourselves the concerned and committed citizens of Mera Bharat Mahan. We should identify the illiterate in our vicinity and teach them the basics of not only the three Rs but also about hygiene and health. We should encourage our children to follow suit. Father and daughter, mother and son can teach together and also be taught together. That I think will be a beginning in banishing the scourge of illiteracy and ensuring real empowerment of children.
This might sound simplistic to many of you. But please keep in mind that all great revolutions have begun with a simple step and eventually led to terrific results.
An old and frail man picked up a handful of salt in 1931 and rang the death knell of the biggest empire in the history of human civilisation.
We too can make a small beginning. Each of us can pick up a single soul shrouded in ignorance and lead him (or her) on the well lit path of knowledge.
All it needs is little bit of effort, a little bit of commitment and a tiny voice in our minds and hearts that will urge us on to make the lives of those around us a little better.
Only then can we hope for a world where a four year old Farhan does not have to slave for thirteen hours and a nine year old Sagar does not have to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali.
This reminds me of the immortal words of Pablo Neruda, the famous poet and Nobel Laureate:
“We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the foundation of life. Many of the things we need, can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer “Tomorrow”. His name is TODAY.”
Before I end I would like to share with you a little poem I have written. It is a prayer of a girl child to her mother. I hope it conveys a feeling which is close to my heart and I am sure your hearts too - that is the right of a child to read and write.