In a dingy neighbourhood of North Delhi, tiny hands scrambled together needles and pieces of cloth. They were housed in shabby rooms, and their dainty feet ached from no space. Beads of sweat dripped from their foreheads as they stitched together school bags in different sizes and shapes – every bag made with aching hands.
Irony met them at an early stage in life. They worked for nine to 12 hours to craft bags for school going children of their age. Every time they wanted to go back home, their maalik(owner) refused to let them go, citing that advance money had been paid to the agents who brought them to work and they needed to work to repay it. While school children held books and pencils, these children held needles and thread.
However, on August 29, they heard unfamiliar footsteps rushing towards their door. The Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) of the area, along with his team, had come to rescue them. Twenty children, between the age group of 10 to 17 years, from two bag-making factories, were rescued. All these children are now in government-owned shelter homes, safe from the owner who abused, exploited and robbed them of their childhood. They are now free to learn, play, grow and become children again.
It may sound like a scene from a movie, but it’s a harsh reality of the country. According to Harvard scholar Siddharth Kara, there are approximately 2.05 crore bonded labourers in the world, with South Asia home to about 85% of them. As per his research, India has about 60% (1.07 – 1.27 crore) of the world’s bonded labours.
A substantial number of these bonded labours are children. They sweat in inhumane conditions, with no access to human rights or the laws of this land. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, has come to the rescue of bonded labours several times. But, the evil of bonded labour still lurks around – throwing many into dungeons, trapping many into the vicious cycle of forced labour.
I remember Nelson Mandela’s words, even as the rescued child bonded labours stare at their newfound future, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
We can end bonded labour. Together, we can seek justice. After all, they are not anybody’s children. They are yours, just as your own.
By Sarah Jacob