32 kids rescued from bonded labour

By Srinivas Iyer

MUMBAI: Following a raid by police officials along with Samarthan, a Mumbai-based NGO, 32 children were rescued from Walope village near Chiplun in Ratnagiri district.

Most of the children were Dalits and under 14 years.

The children, who were rescued on Friday morning from a local sweetmeat shop, were working in extremely harsh conditions and were poorly fed. The Ratnagiri case is symptomatic of the widespread use of child labour in the state. According to 1998 national statistics, Maharashtra has the third-largest child labour force in the country.

Says Shabana Warne, coordinator of Samarthan, who has been working for the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers in Maharashtra for many years, "We rescued 32 children and 36 adult workers during the raid carried out by Suresh Bhengde, deputy superintendent of police, Chiplun, based on a official complaint lodged by Vivek Pandit (founder of Samarthan and Shramajeevi Sanghatana). On the basis of the information provided by J. P. Pandian, a relative of one of the rescued children, we initiated action and complained to the local police authorities."

In the FIR, Samarthan alleges that the kids were illegally brought to Chiplun by Johnson Nadar, proprietor of a sweetmeat shop called Johnson Sweets. "These children, who are Dalits from Tamil Nadu, were brought here by agents hired by Nadar more than a year ago," alleges Warne. "Their parents were paid a paltry sum of Rs 1000."

According to Samarthan, the children were paid a shockingly meagre salary of Rs 150 a year. They were used to manufacture chikki and other sweets, and were forced to work from 6 a.m. to nine in the night. The police have already recorded some preliminary statements made by the children -- according to which, they were often beaten up, and allowed a lunch break of only 10 minutes. Narrates 10-year-old Balraj, "We worked from early morning to late night and were paid Rs 150 for the whole year. We were allowed to rest only during the lunch break and were given two pairs of shorts and two vests by way of clothing."

According to Samarthan officials present during the raid, several of the rescued children said that on earlier occasions they had tried to escape from the premises but had been caught and beaten by Nadar. A few of them also complained about sustaining minor burns due to spillage of hot oil. "We have requested the police to arrest the accused under the Section 16 of the Abolition of Bonded Labour Release Act of 1989 and Section 3 and 14 of the Child Labour Prevention and Regulation Act of 1986," says a Shramajeevi Sanghatana member. "We have also asked that they should be denied bail."

Meanwhile, Samarthan has appraised the Central Labour Secretary Dr Laxmidhar Mishra in New Delhi, who has assured that the matter will be looked into. Beside this, a petition has already been sent to the National Human Rights Commission asking it to direct the Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu state governments to look after the rehabilitation of these children. Another letter has been sent to Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh demanding that there should be stricter implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Act, according to which it is the responsibility of the district magistrate of every state to record the details of the migrants moving in or out of the district and to submit these records to his counterpart in the other state.

More than anything else, Samarthan is hoping to reunite these children with their families.


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