CHENNAI: Bones show through the shirt of the skinny 18-year-old Surya Prakash. His head hangs low. He shies away from making eye contact and mumbles when asked a question. He answers in as few words as possible.Surya Prakash, a former bonded child labourer from Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu, was trafficked to Nasik, Maharashtra, when he was 12. He is among thousands of children across the country that get trapped into bonded labour. Surya Prakash's father was abusive and his mother was mentally ill. As a pre-teen, Surya Prakash contemplated dropping out of school to run away from home. A “labour broker” from Usilampatti enticed him with a job offer.
It was just after the summer holidays in 2012 when the boy had earned a little from running errands during his vacation. Excited at the prospect of making his own money, Surya Prakash jumped at the offer to go to Maharashtra to work at a confectionery run by a Tamil family from Madurai.The broker had already taken his brother and a cousin, so he thought that this was his only escape from the dysfunctional family he was trapped in.
He did not realise that he would sleep only about three hours a day for the next five years. Not once during those years was he allowed to visit his family. He was beaten up and yelled at every day.Surya Praksh never played with colourful play dough, he was instead woken up at 4 am to knead large portions of maida dough to make gulab jamun. He sat in front of boiling oil for hours together frying ‘appalams’. He swept, wiped, dusted, chopped, sliced, fried, boiled, mixed and cried, but never got to do what other kids his age did.
“(One day) I fried some appalams. It became too brown. My owner’s wife sprinkled water on the boiling oil, in front of which I was sitting,” he recalled.As water drops fell into the oil, it splattered into boiling droplets, steam scarring his face. Another time, Surya Prakash remembers running to his wailing cousin, only to find that he was beaten till his knee bones were visible.
After five-years of agony, he finally ran away to work at a field on the outskirts of Mumbai from where police rescued him. He finally returned to Tamil Nadu in 2017, where he is now undergoing vocational training in carpentry, while being rehabilitated by social workers.
M Hariharan’s story is no different. While he hails from Theni district, another ‘labour broker’ from Usilampetti took him to a ‘murukku company’ at Hosur in Krishnagiri district in 2013. His mother did not see him for the next five years. “When he was young, he was a ‘sandiyan’ (a notorious man who often gets into fights). Now he doesn’t talk. I fear that he has some mental health problem. Even I don’t know how to talk to him anymore,” she complains.
A few months after he started working, Hariharan had allegedly asked his mother to take him back. The next 4-5 years’ time was a haul she never expected.“I visited the police station at least a hundred times, went to the revenue office every week, got cheated by lawyers twice with no result. I am neither rich nor educated. I don’t know how to follow these things up without support,” she said.
Five years later, with the help of social activists from the International Justice Mission (IJM), she rescued her son.As per the National Crime Records Bureau 2016 statistics, 9,034 children were reported to be trafficked across the country, of which 317 were from Tamil Nadu. The report states that 14,183 children were rescued in 2016 (that may include children trafficked in the previous year). Of that, 648 were from Tamil Nadu.
There is no available statistics on the number of trafficked children. While push-factors such as poverty, broken family and hostile education environment send children into bonded labour, a comprehensive rehabilitation plan could prevent them from getting trapped again, say activists.“Often, it’s extremely difficult to offer redemption to victims of child bonded labour as they don’t even qualify in Class 8 exams,” said Kural Amudhan, assistant director of International Justice Mission, adding that the government’s rescue policies should be made more victim-friendly.
Pointing to the Central government’s emphasis on Right to Education (RTE), informal-labourer rights actvist R Geetha said that education and abolition of child bonded labour are like two sides of the same coin. “There has to be an open classroom in every government school to re-integrate dropped-out students. This is a very effective way to prevent children from being trafficked again,” she said.
She also pointed out that there is a dire need of an exhaustive survey to understand the prevalence of child bonded labour in order to offer the right kind of help to them.
Children who are trafficked are often kept under intimidation and the need for psycho-social counselling is extremely crucial to their cognitive development during rehabilitation, opines psychiatrist Shanthi Davidar, a consulting psychiatrist who works with labour and trauma.“A child’s brain, under 14 years of age, should be tuned into receiving care. When they are asked to be adults and forced to give care and tackled with brutality, they themselves grow up to become insensitive,” she said.
Geetha suggested that rescued children be provided with a conducive environment to open up and unlearn the idea of childhood they were brought up in. “This is the most challenging part as they are ill-equipped to either articulate the trauma they faced or compare their experience with a baseline,” she said.
Hariharan’s mother Mahalakshmi says that she struggled five years to rescue a son she doesn’t even recognise anymore.“But I will give my life to ensure that my daughter never drops out of school. I will beg or borrow and make sure that she studies anything she wants to. She wins gold medals for running. I will be proud if she wants to be sports star,” she promises.
‘Child labour tainting country’
Chennai: “Let’s pledge to raise children as children rather than as labourers, and also to eradicate child labour in the world,” said Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami in his message on the World Day Against Child Labour earlier this week. “Child labour is a humiliation to the country. Parents should realise this and send their wards to school to help them get education,” Palaniswami said. “Children are our future. Our primary duties are to provide right education and protect welfare of the children. These are important to build up a strong and skilled generation,” the CM said. Sending children to work when they have to play and enjoy life is a heinous crime. The government has been implementing many child welfare schemes and to eradicate child labour, it is rescuing and rehabilitating child labourers. So, all should join with the government in its initiatives in eradicating child labour, he said. ENS