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Let me begin by telling you a story:
There was a little boy, say 8 year old or even tinier. He lived in a remote village with his family and not a care in the world. He knows he does not have much, but for him it is more than enough as he has his family. One day a man comes to the village and talks at length with his parents. Some time later he is told to pack his bag as he will be leaving with this man for a nicer place, where food will be plenty and he will even have friends his age. Though he does not want to go, he does as he is told because it seems to make his parents happy. The few tears he sheds will be seen by no one. He follows the man quietly and boards a train. Like all little boys the train journey seems exciting. Maybe his parents had made the right decision. 

Fast forward one year later.

It is early morning. The little boy is asleep in spite of his aching back and burnt hands. A  loud voice and then a sharp kick in his ribs. It is time to wake up. The master is angry. In no time he is huddled with many little boys like him painstakingly gluing pieces of glass onto brightly coloured bangles. These bangles are the only colours he and his pals see. It has been eons since he saw daylight. The room where he works from dawn to dusk and where he sleeps are dark and damp. Another working day has begun.

This is not a fairy tale nor a horror story! It is the stark reality of thousands of small children ‘sold’ by their poor parents for a paltry few thousands of rupees and used as cheap labour in bangles and other cottage industries. A handful of them were ‘rescued’ yesterday.

The images that were aired on TV made my blood run cold. These boys were barely older than my grandson. They toil day after day and are not allow to rest, let alone play. The chemicals used cause burns that are barely treated. They live in unhygienic conditions and are barely fed. CCTV cameras are fitted in these salubrious surrounding to keep a check on them. Their spirit has been killed. They have become automatons too scared to break any rule for fear of punishment.

I have not been able to sleep since I saw this report.

In the report it was said that 5000 children are sold every month just in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They are then sent to faraway states to work in horrific sweatshops. This happens across India in cottage industries, brick kilns, incense making units and ever firecracker making ones where accidents occur time and again. Child labour is alive and kicking! And it is not always invisible. Children work in tea stalls and shops. They work in neighbours and even friends homes. The tragedy is that even when we see them we remain mute and frozen.

It is time we asked ourselves why we do so. Is it because we do not want to ‘offend’ said friend or neighbour? Is it because we feel it does not concern us? Is it because we do not want to get involved in legal and such matters? Or is it because these are not our children and can never be so we simply do not care.

But these are children. Children who should be playing and attending school; children who should be laughing. These are children who have no voice and hope that someone will raise theirs. We all applauded Kailash Satyarthi when he received his Nobel Prize for his fight against child labour. For a a few days ‘child labour’ became the flavour of the moment, the talk at page 3 parties when everyone made the appropriate clucks till a new flavour took over.

There are people working relentlessly to help eradicate child labour but they are few and even with the best intentions cannot win this war alone. Each one of us has to take up the cudgels against child labour in our own way. All that is needed is to pick up your cellphone and dial the child help line or the Child Welfare Committee of your area, should you come across a child working. They will do the rest. You need not reveal your name should you wish to keep your ‘reputation’ intact.

Some will want to lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the parents. Come on, are they not the ones who ‘sell’ their children. How many of us have lived in villages and experienced abject poverty, the kind that makes you feed your child chillies so that she drinks enough water to keep her belly full. How many of us have had to pat a hungry child to sleep? If we had done so, we would understand how easy it is to fall prey to the well oiled seduction spiel of the middle men of mafias that handle child labour. Those five thousand rupees that we spend easily on a meal in a restaurant, mean the world to the hungry and probably indebted family. And then there is the promise of a paltry thousand or so every month.

There are laws, but again these are the kind that cannot be implemented without the help of each and everyone of us. Maybe the first thing we should do is stop giving money to children who beg. That would be a first step in the right direction.

Next let us ask ourselves why is there child labour in a country where there are so many adults on the job market. The answer is simple. It is so well exemplified in our constant need to haggle for everything and want everything cheaper. If you do your maths conscientiously you would realise that the price you are quoting cannot cover the cost of the good, if all laws are respected. The minimum wage in India is around 150 Rs a day for 8 hours. The children rescued were paid 1500 rs a month for 12 hours work. That is a meagre 50 rupees a day. And this tiny labour is not only cheap but docile and easily tamed with a few slaps or kicks. It is a win-win situation for the employer.

The law makers have a role to play too. It is pointless to have toothless laws or laws that have large loopholes. Maybe it is time that every thing manufactured bore labels stating that no child labour was employed and it is also time that we accepted to pay a higher price.

And what about the Right to Education. It is certainly not made for the rich and educated who will send their children to school law or no law. It is for those very children who run the risk of falling into the hands of child labour mafias. And I say it again it is the like of us who can help them and rescue them.

I wonder what happens no ‘rescued’ children. Are they truly rescued? How does one deal with the traumas they have suffered? How does one ensure that they go back to their family and are not sold again? How does one ensure that they get an education if it is not too late for them? How does one give them back their usurped childhood.

How does one make sure that they laugh again?