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Last Updated: Monday, 9 October 2006, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Child workers face uncertain future
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Dhiraj Kumar
Dhiraj Kumar is lying low for the moment

Dhiraj Kumar is staring at an uncertain future. Until two days ago, he worked at a tea stall at the Indian capital, Delhi's, biggest bus station, ISBT.

His 12-hour shift began at nine in the night. He made tea, washed pots and pans and glasses, and served the customers.

For his work, he was paid 50 rupees (a little more than $1) a day. On the days business was bad, he was paid less, with the promise that the balance would come tomorrow. And, says Dhiraj, tomorrow seldom comes.

When a glass was stolen from the tea shop, he was held responsible and sacked.

Dhiraj tells me he is 14 years old. I tell him he looks younger. "I was born in July 1992. You do the maths," he insists.

A child rights activist, Ashraf, who works with him, says when he met Dhiraj last month, he said he was 13.

"In just a month he is grown by a year since he knows he is no longer employable from Tuesday unless he is 14," says Ashraf.

Vulnerable

An Indian government ban on children working as domestic servants or in roadside food stalls comes into effect on 10 October.

A senior official in the Labour Ministry, SK Srivastava, says, "Children under 14 are vulnerable to physical, mental and even sexual abuse. Their exploitation goes unreported and unnoticed inside the closed confines of homes and food stalls."

Child labour
Thousands of children are employed in roadside food stalls

Mr Srivastava says anyone found violating the ban will be penalised under the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986 and punishment can range from a fine to imprisonment.

According to the ministry, the ban will affect 185,000 children working as domestic help and 70,000 who work in roadside food stalls.

NGO activists say the numbers could be as high as 20 million. They say the numbers are overwhelming and the government is unprepared to deal with the repercussions of the ban.

Gerry Pinto, a specialist in child rights and child protection, has misgivings about how the ban will work: "It will push thousands of children out of the middle-class homes and food stalls, where they have been earning a living and have some sort of shelter, out onto the streets or into prostitution".

The Delhi NGO Forum for Street and Working Children - a collection of 35 organisations - says the government policy "lacks transparency" and there is utter confusion about what will happen once the ban is implemented.

Mr Srivastava's advice to all those who employ children at the moment is to "call the labour department, or an NGO or the Delhi State Child Line for guidance".

He agrees the enforcement of the ban has to be matched with rehabilitation and says the "dependent families of these children will be looked after".

'Ridiculous'

But it is a tall order. Most of the working children come from five Indian states - Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Their parents say crippling poverty forces them to send their children, sometimes as young as five, to work in other people's homes and factories.

Rescued child labourers who were employed in textile factories around Delhi
Most rescued children soon return to work

Rita Panicker, director of Delhi-based child right's NGO Butterflies, says unless these "source" states are involved, any move to ban child labour is bound to fail.

"The ban has come without any prior planning for restoration and rehabilitation of children who will be affected. It is ridiculous to think that announcing a ban alone will end child abuse and exploitation," she says.

Ms Panicker says more institutions and short-stay homes are needed where the rescued children can stay before they are returned to their families.

India already has laws in place to protect children and bans the use of young workers in several hazardous industries, but they remain largely ineffective.

Millions of children around the country continue to work in firecracker and matchstick factories or are involved in carpet-weaving, embroidery or stitching footballs.

Worse off

Factories employing children around the country are raided regularly and children are "rescued" and paraded before the media.

But, Aatreyee Sen of the Human Rights Law Network says, "Almost 90 to 95% of these rescued children come back to work, most of them are actually worse off. Many end up being sold or trafficked."

Considering that bans and raids in the past have failed to work, most activists say the latest ban is unlikely to have any effect.

Ashraf, who visited the ISBT just two days ago, says he saw at least 40 children working in the food stalls here. Today, they are all missing.

"He has gone home," is the common response when we inquire about the children.

A euphemism for "staying out of sight", explains Ashraf.

So most of the children are waiting for the dust to settle, after which they will come back. For, as Dhiraj says, they really have no alternative.

His parents and his four younger siblings live in Bihar and the small plot of land the family owns is unable to provide for everyone. Dhiraj's income makes the crucial difference in the family's battle to survive.

So, he says he is going to stick it out here. "I have found another job, at another food stall, but I've been told to lie low for a few days. There will be raids for three four days, but after that they will stop. And then I can go to work," he says.




SEE ALSO
India tightens child labour laws
10 Oct 06 |  South Asia
India bans child domestic labour
01 Aug 06 |  South Asia
Global child labour figures fall
04 May 06 |  Special Reports
Child workers refuse to quit jobs
22 Nov 05 |  South Asia
Educating India's child labourers
13 Sep 05 |  South Asia
Misery of India's child sari weavers
29 Aug 05 |  South Asia
'Child labourers' freed in Mumbai
01 Jun 05 |  South Asia

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