Inside the building at Delhi’s Thyagaraj Stadium, a group of children played football with cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar as part of UNICEF’s World Children’s Day celebrations. Outside, the 13-year-old boy sat alone, wearing an orange vest, tired after spending the day cleaning the men’s washroom in the building, and loading and unloading water canisters during the event.
Feeling left out from all the excitement inside, the boy said: “Mujhe accha nahin lag raha hai (I’m not feeling very good).” All that he knows, he said, is that his mother sent him to work here for the day. “I have been at the venue since 8 am, and will be here till 5 pm. I will get Rs 350 for this work. This is the first time I am working, I go to school usually,” he said, adding that he stayed near the stadium with his parents, elder sister and two younger brothers. “My father works in the pantry of an office and my mother works as domestic help,” he said.
UNICEF “works in 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfil their potential, from early childhood through adolescence”. And apart from Tendulkar, who is the UN body’s goodwill ambassador, Tuesday’s event was attended by Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India representative, and Hrushikesh Senapati, director, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
All of them participated in a panel discussion around the theme of ‘Schools as a supportive environment for children’. Attended by around 800 children, the discussion was followed by a game of Unified Football — mixed teams of children with physical and intellectual disabilities, and those without — with Tendulkar.
The sanitation and cleaning work at Thyagaraj Stadium, which is run by the Delhi government, is outsourced to ACME Excellent Management. When contacted by The Indian Express, an ACME representative said that housekeeping staff at the UN event were not hired by them. “The staff hired through ACME perform regular cleaning work at the stadium. When private events take place, the event organisers bring their own housekeeping staff,” the representative said.
According to an official from the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education, which also holds charge of sports, all additional staff are hired by the organisers for private events. “The stadium only has enough staff for basic requirements. We do not have the capacity to deal with the additional load of events. All additional requirements of security, sanitation and crowd-management staff is arranged for by private event organisers. Even if the Directorate holds an event, we deploy additional staff, albeit through the stadium caretaking. But it is very clear that we do not have any child working on the premises,” the official said.
A UNICEF spokesperson told The Indian Express that the organisation follows a zero tolerance policy with regard to issues such as these and that this matter requires enquiry. “We follow a strong due diligence process with all our partners and suppliers. Our event organiser Indebo has made it very clear that the boy had not been hired through them… we will be writing a letter to Thyagraj Stadium authorities expressing our discomfort that something like this happened, and will also investigate whether this lapse was by the stadium or our supplier,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also pointed out that multiple events are held at the stadium, indicating that the boy could have been hired for another event. However, the directorate official said that while a school zonal tournament had been held during the day, no additional staff was deployed for that event.
For the 13-year-old boy, meanwhile, it was a day to remember. “Tomorrow, I will be back in school,” he said.