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The Children That God FORGOT

There's one cruelty, one injustice, which trumps all others in this world — it's the sight of kids having to work.

But we let this endure, don't we? We in India. I've been witness to some cases of child labor.

Luckily (is that even a correct word), I've never been personally responsible for child labor. Which is to say, I've not kept a kid at home on a 24 X 7 X 365 basis like some folks do.

I don't know if that exonerates me entirely though ... for I have surely BENEFITED from child labor.

Let me tell the few stories that I have witnessed and I remember. I hope these are ALL that I've seen. I hope I've n't forgotten any.

  1. I remember the super-smart kid in Mohali who was managing his dad's tea-stall for the better part of the day.
  2. The kid in the roadside dhaba.
  3. I sit quietly and observe how two kids react to food: one rich kid who got a glass of sugarcane juice in the hot summer and the poor kid who bought an ice-cream.
  4. I think of the kid in Gurgaon who ran his dad's tea-stall when his dad happened to be absent. He was street-smart too. Such kids invariably acquire this street-smartness.
  5. And yes, the sexy lady neighbor who was apparently running a gym and kept a minor girl at home 24 X 7 X 365.
  6. Oh and the wonderful ladies — my former colleagues at my former office — who all had babysitters (again available-round-the-clock kind) at home who were themselves minors.
  7. And that extraordinary scene of the beggar kids (presumably brother and sister) that I saw on a local train while on a trip to my home state.

In India, manpower is cheap. Perhaps that explains everything. Above all. Economics. Selfishness. The survival instinct. The instinct that enables us (apparently) to survive on insects and snakes if need be in an emergency. The Cast Away thing. We adapt.

There's child labor in India. So?

It's a part of the natural order of things in India. People GROW UP witnessing it, benefiting from it, getting USED to it. It does not stand out like a sore thumb.

When outsiders visit India, the same things appear to them as egregiously revolting.

There's NO WAY that I can attempt to enter the mind of a laborer or a rickshaw puller (perhaps an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh) who lives in a plastic tent in a slum in Gurgaon with his wife who works as domestic help. And they'll have three little kids.

Sex is probably the cheapest (free) form of entertainment they've access to. Even condoms cost money. And for poor people, male (or may be it's gender independent) kids can mean SOURCES OF INCOME in short order.

But why am I trying to solve problems that are clearly way beyond my capability to solve?

Let me tell stories instead.

The Mohali kid, real name Sachin, was sharp as a Gillette razor with three blades.

At perhaps 10 years old, he could go toe-to-toe in using swear words with adults who made the mistake of making fun of him using swear words.

But being 10 years old, he was passionately into cricket as all 10-year-olds in India tend to be. So, he used to be fidgety during the afternoon when all his friends gathered in the playground and the play began. He had a bat and ball of course. When there were no customers, he would play by himself. On the main road. With buses and two and four-wheelers zipping by. That's India. You learn to take chances.

And the kid was fast with arithmetic of course. One has to be. Customers order this cigarette or that ghutka or something and have tea and then hand over a hundred rupee note. You've to be able to do fast and correct arithmetic and return the correct change amount to the customer.

He spread a large tarpaulin on the sidewalk (or footpath where the tea-stall is located of course — it's a completely temporary structure) one hot summer afternoon to rest awhile as there usually tend to be hardly any customers during that hot time. The trees luckily provide some shade though kids being as active as they naturally are, they tend to be drenched in sweat.

The duty hours for him: 6 AM in the morning to 7 PM in the evening. I often sat at the makeshift seats available at the stall for the customers and observed his many activities and mannerisms.

Perhaps a Fitzgerald or a Dickens would have written a novel. I wonder about what the future holds for him. A lifetime of menial labor is probably guaranteed. In a crime-prone place, such people might easily drift into crime (or drugs or alcohol abuse if those options were available) and a consequently very uncertain lifespan.

I don't know what might have happened to him now since what I'm narrating here are events from the summer past — some 5/6 months back.

And the 10-yr-old had a back-up too. Predictably. Let's call him Kid. The assembly line NEVER sleeps in India.

I saw a car stop near the tea-stall one day and the owner got out and went somewhere nearby on foot. The wife and the kid were inside the car. They were waiting for the man to return. The kid got a glass of sugarcane juice from the nearby stall for his mom. Then a glass for him.

He drank it reasonably happily. He was doing a bit crazy stuff like any kid such as lying on the back seat of the car and trying to look at the underside of the car. His mom was meanwhile checking the school notebooks of the kid.

The tea-stall junior kid (that's Kid) meanwhile brought a stick of ice-cream from a passing ice-cream vendor and happily slurped at it. I thought the poor kid was more carefree. The rich kid was already getting more reserved.

But I wondered about the different futures that awaited them as they grew up. The rich kid, if he doesn't lapse into some stupidity will eventually end up in some job or the other after getting some sort of an education.

The fate of the poor kid of course is immensely unpredictable. I just remember this one-time incident and remember sitting there and thinking about it. I know I am probably not adding any valuable insights. I'm just recording it for posterity. I will forget all this after some time.

And then I saw one day how a mother's love for her infant is the same across the wealth range. This rag-picker family came by one day to pick up waste from the hip in a gunny sack. And the wife had to help the husband in the process. She placed the infant she was holding on the sidewalk. While she was helping her husband, she was also looking back intermittently and keeping an eye on the infant just so the kid didn't do something stupid like eating stone or may be wandering on to the road or something. I saw the mother sit on the pavement holding the baby and sort of grooming her with affection. Some universal stuff.

Kids in roadside dhabas are almost compulsory fixtures. Of course, the local police uses the dhabas too for their lunch and dinner. These dhabas are relatively cheap. You can get sufficient stuff to eat for a dollar or under a dollar.

Shows that our law enforcement personnel are probably not paid very well.

I was a regular at the dhaba too. I would see this kid in charge of removing plates after folks had eaten. And mop up the table a bit with a wet cloth.

As the clock reaches towards 10 PM though, the kid obviously gets quite tired and sleepy. He sleeps on any available surface: the bench or even sitting on a chair. And it's difficult to wake him up once he's asleep.

It's a strange sight to see. The staff wake him up by making fun of him of course. May be they sprinkle a bit of water on the kid and the kid wakes up surprised. Nobody is inhuman enough to torture him of course. But that does not negate the basic illegality and cruelty involved.

I've no solutions to offer. Just recording what I saw. I'd love to go back and check up on the kids now. I think the hotel kid probably went back home (or wherever) even before I had left Mohali. I think the tea-stall would still be there. And the kid. Unless some tragedy has struck the family. The temporary structures often belie the enduring nature of enterprises in India.

I remember one guy selling sweets on the veranda just outside the Pizza Hut place near CP in New Delhi. I used to work in an office in the vicinity many years ago. When I revisited the place recently, the guy was still selling ice-creams as usual. Much else had changed. Much bigger businesses had started and closed down in the meanwhile in the vicinity ... Maruti showrooms and BMW showrooms included.

And so we leave Mohali and reach the capital of India. The shining city on a hill ... you could argue, no?

And at every traffic light (almost), you find kids begging.

And in rich Gurgaon, the tea-stall owner outside the apartment where I lived was an old man, a curious character, one-of-a-kind. When I asked for extra sugar once, he added it to the glass of tea and when I asked for a spoon to mix the sugar with, he handed his pen over to me instead (so that I might use it for mixing the sugar — in case someone is somewhat mystified). I chose not to use the pen.

He is blessed (as Indians would put it) with about five kids (most probably). And the youngest two kids often spend significant amounts of time at the tea-stall. I had the occasion to observe them. They went to school ... in a manner of speaking. About once a month. I guess it must have been a government school.

The 10-year-old kid (his name appropriately enough is Vikas or development) is there to help his dad. And slowly, he has learned the business: how to make tea, serve it to folks, and collect money. And the kids grow smart about money unavoidably. The poor laborer types who tend to be the primary customers might try to not pay for something or the other. So the kids have to be tough and smart about that. And the kids ARE.

Eventually, the kids manage to run the tea-stall in the absence of their dad. And to my mild surprise, I noticed one day that this kid was sitting at another shop. I realized eventually that he was now working at that shop ferrying supplies on a bicycle. Clearly, the kid or the dad realized that there was no point in whiling away time loitering at the tea-stall. The time could be better utilized to earn some money. Take that ! Long live the entrepreneurial spirit !

I'm fairly sure that things would be in pretty much the same shape now as well. Things often have a way of not changing in India. And changing in strange ways.

Those tea-stall kids would at times bring a toddler to the shop ... the toddler could barely walk. And after a year or so, I was surprised to see a similar looking toddler again and I was a bit surprised — kids don't grow younger with time !! Then someone brought home the point to me that THIS toddler was not the same one as THAT toddler. A year in India translates to a NEW toddler. A NEW arrival. EUREKA!!

And I'm sure now there would be even more babies now. I remember how a couple of laborer families were living in plastic tents on a ground there ... they're working on some construction happening nearby. And the two families between them had NUMEROUS babies and I used to try and count all of them.

I had named them as Sec-56 village. One day it all disappeared. They must have shifted some place else. They won't die. They'll survive. Millions survive in that manner in India. Human are enterprising. We endure despite many challenges. Perhaps like Faulkner had put in a different context.

I saw kids one day walking to the cigarette stall for toffees. It was a hot summer day. You or I won't be able to walk barefoot on the blazing hot asphalt surface. I touched the asphalt with my bare foot to test the temperature. It was blisteringly hot. The kids walked barefoot on it quite non-nonchalantly.

Now to tales of babysitters ... of permanent domestic staff. There are some unique advantages to being rich in India.

If you're making even moderately good amounts of money, you can employ a bunch of servants. Let's count. The average salaried person with a family and a kid or two usually has the following help: a guy who washes the car in the morning daily, domestic cleaning lady who washes the dishes, etc., of course the dhobi for washing and ironing clothes, perhaps a driver to drive the car, a babysitter for the kid (s) if needed.

So the neighbors in the apartment complex where I used to live were very typical for Gurgaon. The husband was quite decent and gentlemanly, talking nicely. I would guess him to be an MBA working in some MNC. The wife was sort of high-end wearing tight clothing. The couple probably had a kid about 6 or 8 years old.

This lady was running a gym. Let me mention here that she looked quite fit as well. Now I do not USE gyms. Per se. So, I don't have too much idea about them. Perhaps there's a need for lots of towels in gyms. Makes sense since exercise means sweating and you have to use various exercise equipment on which you have to place parts of your body. The idea already appears quite ghastly to me.

Hence towels are quite useful. For some reasons, gyms always employ minor boys as the support staff. Well, I guess, the reason is simple — you can afford to pay them less.

And this gym-owning lady also probably had a full-time day job. So, throughout the day, somebody needed to be present at the apartment. For what? Well, so that when the gym staff boys came, they would find someone at home to whom they could give the dirty towels and take fresh towels with them.

So that's the economics of that. You need human presence at home. So keep a child at home. Of course, the kid must double up as domestic help. She can certainly wash the dishes after everyone has eaten their sumptuous food. I don't know if these domestic help kids get to share the same food or they are left to merely look at all the mouth-watering food and salivate. What a crime that would be if that happens to be the case.

And I observed that the minor girls that the lady kept at home kept changing. What seemed to happen was that the kids were probably careless or something and did not satisfy the madam and so she may have fired them. I remember overhearing one time the conversation the lady had with the parents of one such kid. She was telling the parents that they must tell the kid to be more careful while handling expensive stuff and she must admit to breaking stuff when she does break them. The kid MUST NOT cause economic loss. And the parents of course COMPLETELY agreed with the lady and promptly told their daughter in Bengali that she must be more careful and truthful, etc.

So you see the strange and difficult reality. The parents are volunteering their own kid for this kind of a job of domestic help. For them, the advantages are obvious. The parents probably even get a monthly salary to keep on behalf of their daughter. And the daughter gets a nice home to stay in and all the rest of it.

So how does one even begin to get out of this curious conundrum?

And so unto the power ladies of 21st century India. India, the IT superpower of the world. Or, as I like to put it ... just as the state of Bihar provides laborers to the rest of India for all sorts of menial activities such as construction work, farm work, etc., India has the proud honor of supplying IT professionals to the ENTIRE world to do similar low end, project work. 

So you'll find the world-famous Indian IT professional in all sorts of corners of the world — from Oman to Egypt, from Dubai to Denver, from Boston to Berlin. Anyway. I digress.

There are women working in IT as well. Women in IT are curious creatures. And before I get accused of misogyny,  let me quickly add that males in IT are curiouser and not merely curious.

So, in the office where I used to work earlier, there were a few married females working who are relevant here since we are talking about child labor.

And sometimes, I would hear them discussing about how the domestic helps absented that day causing a lot of trouble to them. I get a sense that they tend to have a rather overblown perception about themselves.

I used to also see a minor girl visiting the office during the evening hour with the baby of one of these female workers. Clearly, this minor was a permanent domestic help.

Ideally, the family support structure in India is of immense help in these situations. It tends to be the job of the grandparents to take care of the grandchildren. But then in some cases, the grandparents may not be alive. But mostly, Indians do things predictably; on time. They get married on time; they've babies on time. So, by the time the grandparents are 60+ years old, they usually tend to be blessed (to use terminology that Indians might prefer) with grandchildren.

So do these educated people have any regrets at all about the lives that they're destroying by employing children as domestic help? No sir !!

If you point such things out to them, I think they'd argue that ON THE CONTRARY, they're providing a BETTER life to these impoverished children. They'd probably innumerate all the good things that they've done for the domestic help.

I of course do not have these arguments. The last thing I'd waste my time doing would be having fruitless arguments with female IT professionals.

And so the last instance I want to mention here. Extraordinary stuff that you will see probably only in India. Even on the streets of New Delhi, you find kids performing various gymnastic tricks at traffic lights. That is their form of begging.

I was on a train in Orissa on a short distance journey. Train journeys in India (in non-AC compartments) can provide the most extraordinary, unpredictable, and joyful and heartbreaking experiences.

So as the train was chugging along (or perhaps just after it started after stopping at a station), these two kids appeared out of nowhere. The boy probably had a little mustache painted on his face for effect.

The kids were cute looking as all kids tend to be. Having become an infrequent visitor, I was in a tourist frame of mind and immediately took out my camera and started taking pictures of the two kids.

I was astonished to see the way the boy performed various poses for the camera. It was as if he was born to some movie star and instinctively knew how to give a good pose.

He used his sister as a nice prop and sort of tended to push her out of the frame when I wanted to take a picture of her as well.

I took pictures to my heart's content. But I was conscious of the extraordinary tragedy of their lives and the extraordinary lack of empathy that we have come to internalize.

The kids had forgotten why they're there ... from all the excitement of getting their photos taken. But their purpose was to beg of course. And they're 5 or 6 years old or perhaps even younger than that.

Not every passenger on those trains is a tourist. Not everyone will take photos. The kids will beg after performing whatever tricks they have been trained to perform. Most passengers will be irritated with the kids and shout at them, scold them, try to shoo them away in any which way they can. It's worth stressing that this is the stuff of everyday life for those kids. They start begging on Sunday morning and continue till Saturday. And begin again on Sunday.

What will they grow up to be? After a few years of begging, they will turn into hawkers probably selling various eatables on the trains. Any Indian is familiar with how various hawkers get on the train at one station and then sell their stuff for a while and then get off at another pre-designated station. Their area is demarcated — there are many such vendors and everybody needs to do some business. Everybody shares in India.

What's the point, you might wonder, about all of these stories? Is it ok to call them stories? They're very much real ones.

I think it's important to begin to acknowledge the faults in us, if not the monsters. We must first open our eyes and look at the problem and acknowledge that there's a problem. And one of the ways of doing all that is by becoming conscious when we are benefiting from child labor, even if indirectly. The next, difficult step involves not employing child labor directly as domestic help or gym help or whatever other kind of help.

Those sort of decisions will have economic consequences. We'll have to determine our priorities. Is it okay to let child labor persist so that a few educated rich people can lead lives of luxury and convenience? What matters more to us as a society? To ensure that the folks riding the corporate ladder have a smooth journey or to see to it that kids are not discriminated against? Wealth versus human dignity. The decision is ours.

When will we consider child labor a serious enough crime that we won't mind putting some rich lady in jail for it?

I think it's easy to prove that god doesn't exist — else, there won't have been kids working.

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