Updated: November 14, 2015 5:16:52 am
NOBEL PEACE winner Kailash Satyarthi’s message to children — ‘be your own role model or hero’ — on the eve of the day that celebrates them through the birth anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru may or may not reach the several lakhs in West Bengal, for whom the role has been quietly narrowed down to earning their day’s worth while they look for their heroes elsewhere. But for many, the priorities appear to have become very clear.
“Kuchh din baad meri tarakki ho jayegi aur hum waiter ban jayenge (I will be promoted as a waiter in some days),” says 13-year-old Mohammed Majid who washes dirty dishes at a roadside eatery on Ripon Street in Central Kolkata.
The child from Bihar’s Samastipur district was brought to the City of Joy by a “benevolent relative” a little over six months ago. “I wash the dishes here for Rs 110 a day and three meals. My parents and two siblings are back in home (in Bihar). My father works as a labourer at the farm and thinks I should learn the ropes of living in a city early so that I can make it big later,” says Majid whose aim has evolved into becoming a waiter as that would bring “a hike of Rs 10 per day” in his earnings. His eyes lit up at the prospect, which seems good as the employer is “satisfied with my work”.
Majid is just one of the over 4.5 lakh children in the age-group of 5-14 that West Bengal employs without a hitch (data as per 2011 Census determining the country’s child labour population). This number grows to over 24 lakh when the age-group is extended to include those under 19, earning the state sixth position in the national scene.
Significantly, these children are not employed out of anybody’s glare. Just beside the main gate of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) on S N Banerjee Road, 12-year-old Mohammed Khurram can be easily spotted selling chairs for kids. “My elder brother and I manage our father’s business. I have learnt to quote a high price for these chairs and then bring it down in the process of bargaining,” he said. Father Mohammed Jamil figured that “teaching him the tricks of the trade early on was better than sending him to school”. The trade in itself, however, may not be that rewarding. “If it is not a festive season, I may not end up selling even one chair,” said the child.
Thirteen-year-old Sheikh Irfan works at a motorbike repairing shop on Elliot Road for “Rs 2,400 a month and a daily meal”. “When I become an expert mechanic, I will earn about Rs 2,000 a day and can also get a job abroad,” he passes on the piece of information that has been promised to him. He still has a long way to go as he has only been on the job for six months. His employer, Sheikh Khurshid, doesn’t feign ignorance about child labour being against the law. “I know the law but parents of these children come to us and plead us to help train their kids,” he explains the reason. “Otherwise, who would want to get into trouble by hiring children?”
The question remains unanswered at the grocery shop of one Sheikh Raju in Topsia where 9-year-old Zeeshan works as a “trainee”. Zeeshan’s employer does not disclose how much the child is paid but points to Zeeshan’s habit of “running away from the madrasa back home in Bihar” as the reason for his employment here. “He works at the shop during the day and takes private tuition classes in the evening,” Raju explained.
The child labour scenario in Bengal, as per state minister for women and child development Sashi Panja, “has improved significantly”. “We have held talks with the labour department to penalise the employers heavily. We also counsel the parents who let their kids work. The constant drumming is required to raise awareness among both parents and employers,” the minister told The Indian Express.
She, however, conceded that “a lot still needs to be done.”
For the country where over 8 million children (including the marginal workers who are employed for a duration of 3-6 months) are at work, the statement can only be termed an understatement.
At this point, then, the nobel laureate’s words raise only but a small hope.
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