The soft-spoken, tired-eyed boy who goes by the name Rupesh still remembers the moment when a man approached and offered him clothes.
“I was sleeping in a broken down car,” Rupesh recalls. “He was a middle-aged man who looked quite decent.”
Rupesh was around 10 years old at the time, and his parents had died only months before. He had been living on his own, he says, collecting and selling waste papers for just enough money to buy scraps of food. So it was a tempting offer.
He followed the man home. There, Rupesh says, he was given an ultimatum: he would get food, shelter, and clothes, but he would be required to work as a welder repairing fans in return. That afternoon, Rupesh became one of the estimated hundreds of thousands of child labor trafficking victims in India.
Although exact numbers are difficult to quantify, the International Labor Organization conservatively estimates that 5.8 million children aged 5 to 17 in India often work under poor conditions, representing the highest rate of child labor in South Asia. Many of these children are taken away from their homes to perform illegal work, frequently through the use of force or fraud. These children are trafficked to work for various industries, including domestic labor, agriculture, construction work, and manufacturing.
According to India’s Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, amended in 2016, any child under the age of 14 years is prohibited from being employed in hazardous industries. Despite border control officers’ efforts to be more vigilant, much of international child labor trafficking relating to India occurs between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, according to Suruchi Pant, an officer at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Regional Office for South Asia. Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, and Bihar account for much of the interstate child labor trafficking as they suffer from high poverty and low levels of education. And many of them are here, amidst the colorful buildings and crowded streets of Bangalore.
Independent police efforts to minimize child labor trafficking have generally been ineffective, say advocates.
“Child labor is seen as a minor issue compared to other societal problems,” says Mamatha Raghuveer, a founder of Tharuni, an NGO that works for children’s and women’s rights. “There is no motivation or commitment by the police. Labor officials overlook child labor, and often say that they don’t have a vehicle available or that they are busy with law and order.”
So non-profits have largely stepped up as the force most actively–or at least publicly–working against child labor trafficking. These are groups such as Bangalore Oniyavar Seva Coota Organization.
This is where Rupesh ended up–two days after his captor’s brother tipped off the police.
BOSCO is one of a few NGOs in Karnataka that have been continuously fighting numerous child rights violations, including child labor trafficking.
Not only does BOSCO provide counseling, shelter, and vocational training for vulnerable children, it also partners with Childline India Foundation to operate 24/7 Child Helplines in Bangalore for abused or runaway children.
As the sunshine filled the brightly colored room, out by the corner, 14-year old Rahul was laughing along with the other children. Six months ago, Rahul was working at a bakery.
“I had run away from my house,” Rahul recalls. “I started roaming around in railways stations. A man took me and ran. I began working at the bakery in Ramnagar.” Rahul is currently at BOSCO and says he wants to continue his studies.
Then there is Mani, a 9th grade student who came to BOSCO when he was 10 years old. Mani lost his parents in a bus stand when he was 6 years old. Uncertain of where to go, he started roaming around.
“I used to clean buses,” Mani says.
As part of operating the childlines, badged BOSCO personnel visit railways stations, bus stands, and markets daily to locate any lonely children so that they don’t face the struggles of Rahul and Mani. These children are asked why they are alone and sometimes why they have run away from their families. Some children’s family problems are so severe that they cannot be sent back home. In such cases, the children are placed in one of BOSCO’s nine centers where they are provided food, shelter, and education, says Fr. Mathew Thomas, the executive director at BOSCO.
“My friend worked with me in the bus,” says Shivaram. “He is a conductor in Mumbai. He was a little older—15 years.”
Shivaram, now 12 years old, managed luggage in a tourist bus headed to Goa for a monthly salary of four thousand rupees. Soon after his parents died, he was counseled and restarted his education at BOSCO. He is currently in grade school.
“The working conditions were good,” Shivaram says as he nudges his fingers, “but I wanted to study so I came to BOSCO.”
Many children at BOSCO, like Shivaram, continue studying after leaving their jobs. Still, many of the older rescued children are reluctant to go back to school because they were forced to drop out at a very young age. BOSCO encourages these children to complete higher education. But if a child is above 14 years old and is not inclined to study academically, the child can get vocational training. This technical training includes tailoring, electrical work, book-binding, two-wheeler mechanism, carpentry, computer training, welding, baking, printing, and a beautician course. Some might choose to switch between courses, says Thomas.
The challenge is not insignificant – some children have even run away, says Thomas. But for the most part, Thomas says, the staff manage to bring them back by convincing them. As soon as they finish training, those under 18 years old work as apprentices and those over 18 years old work as employees.
MVF’s Residential Bridge Camps
Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in Hyderabad, also works toward the elimination of child labor and promotion of child rights. And it also places emphasis on education, considering it a vital tool required to break the tempting cycle of child labor and abuse.
Inside each classroom at MVF’s Hyderabad residential bridge course camp, students sit on the floor in a circle with their eyes wide as they wait to share their stories. Rajeshwari, who crouches down with her arms crossed, dropped out of school after studying fifth class. Her mother had died, and her father’s health condition was poor so she sought to provide for her family.
“I folded clothes in a clothing shop in Begum Bazaar,” Rajeshwari says. “There, I earned 3500 rupees every month.”
According to the World Bank, which states that the international poverty line is $1.90 (127.49 rupees) per day per person, Rajeshwari’s family of three was in extreme poverty. Currently, Rajeshwari is a student in a residential bridge course camp offered by MVF.
Among the many children in the camp was a girl smiling as she shook her tightly held pigtails. Sreelatha was born and raised in Nellore district in the state of Andhra Pradesh. After completing 2nd class, she was taken to Hyderabad to work as a servant in a doctor’s home. There, she was deprived of food. If, by temptation, she sneaked a meal, she was burnt with a hot, metal spatula, leaving her with physical scars that she cannot forget.
“I went to a shop while working to get a kurkure packet for their kid,” Sreelatha says, staring at the floor. “Someone called Child Help Line.”
Now, Sreelatha is studying at a MVF residential bridge course camp.
MVF provides bridge courses for older rescued children who have not had the opportunity to complete their education. These bridge courses do not serve as a replacement for school, but rather prepare the children for later entry into government schools by teaching them the basics, officials with MVF say.
“There is no space in the formal system to address the older children so we run bridge camps,” says Arvind Kumar, the documentation and research coordinator at MVF. MVF runs four residential bridge camp courses all year round in Telangana.
MVF’s residential bridge course camps in Hyderabad and Ieeja offers basic English, Telugu, Hindi, and Mathematics classes for vulnerable girls. Once the classes are completed, these girls are sent to government schools for state-level education.
“All the children who attend bridge course are mainstreamed to schools,” states Arvind Kumar. “Ninety percent of them complete class 10.” One woman became the first camera women for a TV channel, says Vani Passam, a manager at MVF residential bridge course camp in Hyderabad.
MVF: Building Consciousness
While BOSCO seeks to aid children whose rights have been suppressed by child labor trafficking, the work of MVF at groups of villages called Gattu and Ieeja aims to stop the crime before it even starts.
A small meeting headed by the director of MVF’s Ieeja residential bridge camp was set up in Gattu to discuss efforts to minimize child labor and the poor maintenance of government schools. With 11 male villagers and two MVF officials, the room was often filled with voices speaking above one another.
“Our work is like a war. Exploitation is happening,” says Alankunta Veeravenkata Narasimha Swamy, a coordinator at MVF’s Hyderabad residential bridge camp. “We initially think that it is simple to reduce child labor, but we have to convince many players–neighbors, same caste members, and elders. We have to create an environment where people believe that children should be in school. We have to prepare the entire society.”
MVF has conducted many meetings in Gattu and Ieeja group of villages in an effort to sensitize villagers against child labor. By building consciousness among the children in these villages, MVF created a norm that the children should not work, says Krishna Guntogi, who has been working for MVF since 1997.
“We tie up buffaloes before we take them outside. Why? Because if we let them go, they will leave,” says Ram Mohan, a village assistant for Gattu. “We have tied up our children.”
Reducing child labor trafficking relies heavily on out-right rejecting child labor as a source of income.
“Child labor is seen as common. It is in need of sensitization,” says Mamatha Raghuveer.
Within the villages, MVF is primarily advocating against child labor in cotton fields. Since these children work with their families as part of the agricultural industry, they are classified by the child labor law as working in legal nonhazardous conditions.
But advocates disagree.
“Any child out of school is child labor,” Swamy says. "To say study for one hour is to say work the remaining time; it is pro-child labor." The Juvenile Justice Act differentiates between hazardous and nonhazardous jobs. Either way, the children are losing their development and education, their only means out of poverty, he says. “What is more hazardous than a loss of such an opportunity?”
A lot of child labor trafficking occurs interstate. Middle men initially pay some amount of money in exchange for taking a child with them to serve as labor. The agreement between the middle men and parents is debt-related. Due to high interest rates associated with the debt, parents often cannot pay it back and the child is used as forced labor. There are no right-to-return agreements so the parents cannot file proper evidence, says Raghuveer, who is also a certified lawyer.
It is the cultural variation in attitudes and priorities that increases the prevalence of child labor in India, advocates say. Treating relatives well becomes more important than paying for school supplies.
Economic factors severely impact only 5 percent of child labor cases, says Krishna Guntogi, a local MVF official at Gattu and Ieeja. Many villagers who are subjected to child labor experience difficulty enrolling in schools. Making agreements to child labor is familiar work; a middle man brings them papers informing them of the job requirements and possible wages, and the parents sign the agreement. On the other hand, joining schools requires various certificates and meeting enrollment deadline. Even after enrolling in schools, there is no guarantee that the child will succeed and become employed as an adult. But there is a guarantee that if the child goes to work, he will bring back some money, even if it is only minimal.
The difference between promoting child labor and offering education is the difference between short-term and long-term benefits. “If one child becomes an engineer, then their children will have a different, better future,” says Swamy.
Lack of Infrastructure
While societal attitudes play a significant role on the prevalence of child labor, so does lack of proper educational facilities in villages. When asked why they send their children to work, the parents initially resort to “poverty.” However, when repeatedly asked, they admit that it is due to lack of teachers, accommodations, playgrounds, and infrastructures in government schools, says Arvind Kumar.
“Parents are sending their children to school, but the government is not providing sufficient teachers,” says Swamy. “Right to Education Act is there. We are not asking for charity.” In order to address child rights issues within villages, child rights forums were formed. In addition to monitoring children’s educational resources, these forums notify the government and the media of any child rights violations, which had included pesticide poisoning of children.
Interstate child labor trafficking is increasing with the advancements in technology. If a boy is found to be alone on the streets, he will likely be taken within 20 minutes; if a girl is found, she will likely be taken within 10 minutes, says Mamatha Raghuveer, women’s and children’s rights activist. These children are forced to cross the border quickly because that creates logistical difficulties for local police. Police of the home state cannot simply cross the border and bring back the victims. Instead, they must cooperate with the government officials of the other state. This is often a difficult task because it requires collaboration among various departments, but convergence of different departments, such as police and Women & Child Welfare, in India is difficult.
Meanwhile, according to UNODC, police to citizen ratio in India was approximately 131 to 100,000 in 2013, as opposed to 414 to 100,000 in New York City. With the ever-growing Indian population and relatively stable number of police, child labor trafficking is increasingly getting out of control.
In order to help minimize this interstate inefficiency, Raghuveer has co-founded Network of International Legal Activists, which aims to provide legal aid against abuse of women and children. The network consists of a team of female attorneys who provide legal counselling and support. These attorneys work to rescue some of the children and women who have been trafficked across states. They also helped develop protocols for Ministry of Labor and Employment to provide structure for aiding victims of trafficking. Framing rules in these protocols still continues because each state must set up its own ways of implementing the law. Each state differs in its allocation of budgets. Raghuveer has been fighting for a single case for over five years due to political and economic pressures often associated with child labor trafficking.
Several NGOs and experts estimate that child labor trafficking is on the rise. From bakery industry to tourist industry, hundreds of thousands of children in India are illegally working away from their families, often under poor conditions. But meanwhile, as Raghuveer says, “With high population density and limited number of police, reducing child labor trafficking takes time, sensitization, and a lot of awareness.”