BANSWARA (RAJASTHAN) : It was sometime in December last year when Shiv Bhagwan, a teacher at a primary school in Kataron ka Khera, a small village in Rajasthan’s Pratapgarh district, noticed that two brothers belonging to a Bhil family had suddenly stopped attending school. Bhagwan was particularly concerned as the younger child was better than most others in his class in studies and seldom missed school.
“It seemed odd to me that both Keshav Ram and Kanhaiya Lal, aged 12 and 7, dropped out together. So I went to meet their family in January,” Bhagwan said. What he found out gave him a shock of his life. Their father Nanda and grandmother Sena Devi revealed that the children had been mortgaged for a year to a shepherd from Jalore through a middleman for Rs 20,000 for an annual “contract”.
“I had vaguely heard that among Bhils children are sometimes sent to work as labourers. But this was the first case of modern-day child slavery I was witnessing,” Bhagwan said. Locals said the practice of child slavery has been going on for years, mainly in Pratapgarh and Banswara districts, but it was seldom recorded. It is only since March this year the issue got highlighted after 13 mortgaged children, all from Bhil families, were rescued.
The matter was raised in the Rajasthan Assembly and Parliament recently. While Gulabchand Kataria of the Bharatiya Tribal Party raised it in the Assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kirori Lal Meena did so in the Rajya Sabha. Kataria alleged that about 60 children who had been given away were missing.
The children are mainly mortgaged to shepherds, or Gaderias, a nomadic community with large flocks of sheep. The shepherds prefer to hire Bhil children because they come cheap, eat little, work hard and are disciplined easily.
Rajasthan: Stamp of family approval to mortgaging children for labour
The Gaderias mostly belong to south-western Rajasthan and they take away the children to central and western Madhya Pradesh and parts of northern Gujarat. The children are made to look after cattle and given bare minimum food. In some cases, the shepherds sell the children further for running errands at roadside hotels.
Functionaries at the district Childline, a national helpline for children in distress, and NGO Vagdhaara said while the children are mostly given for a year, the contracts are often extended. They said there could be cases in which children have not returned home even after a decade.The annual contract, surprisingly, happens on paper. The child’s family and the shepherd sign an agreement either on a stamp paper or a plain sheet with a revenue stamp.
In the case of Keshav Ram and Kanhaiya Lal, the agreement was signed on a stamp paper between their father Nanda and Madhoba, the shepherd, in front of two witnesses. The family that earns less than `1,500 a month did not even know where they were taken, how they were kept and what labour they were engaged in.
Bhagwan contacted Childline, whose persistent efforts resulted in an FIR being lodged. Two months later, Childline workers, with the help of Rajasthan and MP police, managed to get Madhoba to drop the children back in the village.
The lives of the children who are taken away are tough. In the three months that Kanhaiya was away, he had not changed his clothes. The blisters on his soles, developed from walking barefoot on concrete roads in hostile weather, were so bad that it took several weeks to heal.
“We were allowed to sleep just four-five hours at night. The shepherd’s family members would beat us over trivial matters,” he said. The Bhils, classified as Scheduled Tribe, are particularly vulnerable due of their impoverishment and low social status. While their income levels could not be accessed, Banswara, inhabited mainly by Bhils, and Pratapgarh are at the bottom of the heap in almost every aspect in Rajasthan.
Areas of darkness
At 55.9% and 56.3%, Pratapgarh and Banswara districts respectively, have the lowest literacy rate in Rajasthan. Over 42% of 0-5 children are under-weight in both districts; 44% of them are stunted