BANSWARA (RAJASTHAN): Indra Charan of Chundai village, nearly 60 km from the Banswara district headquarters, had not seen her 12-year-old son Ajju in the last two years. When she finally met him at a government-run shelter home in Banswara last month, following his rescue from a shepherd in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, she wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad.
Extreme poverty had compelled Indra and her husband Mohan Charan, belonging to the Bhil tribe, to give Ajju away to a shepherd for an annual “contract” of Rs 24,000 in 2017 so that the family could have a steady source of income. But with Ajju back, Indra fears for the survival of her family, including four daughters. “We were close to starvation when a relative got us an offer that if we give away our son for helping a Gaderia in managing his sheep, we will get Rs 2,000 a month. We agreed,” she said.
Her husband is addicted to mahua (local liquor) and the family has no way of earning a livelihood other than selling maize cultivated on a small plot of 1 bigha. There is little or no work available under schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The family gets 5 kg wheat every month per member through the public distribution system but clearly, that’s not enough.
It is families like Indra’s that have no option but to let their minor sons go for labour even if it means the boys will have a hard life and there is no guarantee when will they be back.Asked if she did not miss her son during his years away from home, Indra looks blank. Extreme poverty probably leaves little room for emotions.
It was due to this reluctance on their part to get the child back that the district child welfare committee has decided to keep ajju at the shelter home rather than sending him home. “We suspect he will again be sent for work,” said CWC member Madhusudan Vyas. It’s not just owing to extreme poverty that parents agree to give away their children for small amounts. The social tradition of Nata Pratha, which makes women abandon their children or allow them to go off with another man in case their husband dies or is alcoholic, has also led to children being caught in the spiral of slavery.
The issue of child mortgaging by tribals recently echoed in the state as well as national capital, but even policy makers admit the issue is complex. “It is an extremely unfortunate reality that government schemes are not reaching some of the most impoverished households in southern Rajasthan as a result of which tribal families are taking extreme measures,” said Kirodi Lal Meena, Rajya Sabha MP who flagged the issue.
Gulab Chand Kataria, BJP MP who had first highlighted the matter in the state assembly said, “These children are meant to be in schools, not being sold as cheap labour but if that’s happening, we need to take a hard look.”