Sunday, July 3, 2011

Labouring children fighting for survival

These poor innocent lads strive hard to sustain themselves and the families dependent on them

By: Salman Nizami.

Samir Ahmed swings a heavy sledge hammer down onto a red-hot piece of metal to mold it into a truck part, sweat dripping down a face marked with grime and soot from the fire, and with a focus rare for an 11-year-old. Samir is one of about 1.5 lakh Kashmiri children from total of 2.5 lakh children in part- or full-time work in a state where conflict, poverty, widespread unemployment and a preference for large families have created a huge underage labour market. According to the Save the children NGO an even larger portion of the Kashmir’s children population up to 40 percent were likely to be engaged in paid work. Aid and rights groups say child labour laws are routinely flouted. Kashmiri children’s are not allowed to do hazardous jobs such as Samir’s work in his father's Srinagar’s blacksmith shop. "I would like to go to school, but my father's alone here so I must help him," said samir, whose shoulders appear broad for his age because of the physical work. "My father can't feed us alone because the food in the market is very expensive. We don't receive any assistance from the government." His father, Abdul Razaak , said he moved his wife and four children to ganderbal two years ago from the kupwara district. "We have to work. I don't like my son working here. I want him to go to school, but we have to work," said Razaak, who earns about Rs.500 a week. After more than 2 decades of conflict, Kashmir is one of the poorest region in the country, where children make up half the population, a quarter of children die before the age of 5 and the average life expectancy is 44 years. Some children work for mechanics, in agriculture, weaving carpets, selling goods on the street, begging for money wiping down dusty vehicles stuck in Srinagar’s chronic traffic jams, or collecting cans and bottles from the city's putrid dump. The average annual income for a Kashmiri is 25,000 a year, and many families have to choose between educating children or sending them to work. "A majority of them start to work from age 8, and we have kids below 8 selling things on the street," said Ezabir Ali associated with an NGO ATHWAS. "A major portion of these kids are bread winners for their families." Ezabir , said working children do not shock Kashmiris, but child labour is a key rights and social problem, and the government lacks a plan and resources to deal with it. Ezabir says at least 1.5 lakh children are their families' bread winners. "If it's not dealt with, if they are left without education, then we are not only prolonging the conflict and providing more recruitees for it, but also we undermine any possibility of growth and the future development of the valley," Ezabir said. Wearing a dirty red dress and green pants, Saira 10, carries a white hessian bag to collect scrap metal. Her father was killed in a protest demonstration, and she has to earn money for her mother and four siblings instead of going to school. "I do this for money; I sell it because my father was killed," saira said, wiping her nose on her faded black headscarf. Similar story is of 12 year old Roshan Ara .Her day begins at 8 am when she rushes to a fuel station in Jammu and Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar to earn a living by selling vehicle-cleaning cloth. By 5 pm, she says, she manages to earn Rs 50. Ara's agony began four years ago when her mason father died in a shootout between security forces and militants in village Lolab in Kupwara, a north Kashmir district, which has suffered most since the beginning of militancy in the state in 1990. "Life has been hellish since my father's death," she says, grief visible on her chubby face. "I've had to struggle to feed my mother and three younger siblings after we shifted to Srinagar to live in a slum on the city outskirts." Parveiz Ahmed 14 years old, has a strong urge to study and is fond of playing cricket but is working at a provisional store since he was just seven. “I have never been to school. I wish to be there playing with other children but I have to be at shop from 9am to 6pm and never get a chance to play like other children,” says this innocent boy. Afiq Hussain, now 18, started working as a conductor of a minibus when he was just six, he still yearns to be a doctor but as fate lies he never made it to school and fulfill his dream. “My father died when I was just six months old. I have six sisters elder and there was nobody to support this large family leaving no option but to work and feed my family,” says Afiq. “I don’t want to join school as in that case there will be no one to support our family financially,” says Gulfam, 13 years old. Same is the case with Laila, this cute little girl with dimples deep on both her cheeks. She left the school at the age of eight when she was in class two and is now engaged in household duties at a house in Srinagar, but has strong desire to resume her classes and aspire for a better living.

The state government has proved apathetic to the problems of these children who have suffered due to continued conflict. Their increasing number has corrupted and degenerated social life through delinquency, crime, drug addiction, moral waywardness, educational drop-out, violent attitudes and behaviour, the government does not recognize this pathological social reality.

According to unofficial estimates, there're about 250,000 child labourers in the state. In the 2001 census, the number was pegged at 1,75,000, with 70% of the teenagers belonging to the Valley and most of them orphaned in the conflict. Majority of them were females working in unorganised sectors like handicrafts. According to prominent British NGO, Save the Children research study there're about 52,000 child labourers in only two districts of Kashmir. Titled Adphail Gulab (Unbloomed Roses), the study found that about 39,000 children were working in carpet manufacturing units in central district of Budgam, while 4,000-5,000 children work in automobile workshops of Srinagar. "But the number of child labourers (in Budgam and Srinagar) is undoubtedly much more as our study did not cover many areas due to some technical difficulties,"said Hilal Bhat, programme coordinator of Save the Children. The children, the report revealed, face a host of problems including lack of basic amenities and wage disparity on the basis of sex. "Nearly 80% of them suffer from myopia due to the constant eyestrain," it said, "while others faced immediate and long-term implications including accidents, cuts and burns, chronic bronchitis, chest pain, cough and dysphasia." Most of the children covered under the survey were found to have left schools after the death of their fathers in different militancy-related incidents. "It had become impossible for their families to send them to schools," Bhat said, adding that they finally landed up in carpet weaving looms or in automobile workshops. Kupwara district tops the list of child labourers. "It's estimated that about 25,000 children (aged 6-13) of the district are working in restaurants, shops, private homes and as bus cleaners in different parts of the Valley," said Riffat Rathore a free lance Journalist who has extensively reported on the subject. "It's estimated that about 15,000 children (aged 6-13) of the district are working in restaurants, shops, private homes and as bus cleaners in different parts of the Valley", Hilal Bhat said. He said decades of conflict in Kashmir has left many children without fathers, making them responsible for supporting their family. As a result, the valley had to let teenagers work, but not in hazardous jobs. "The people of Kashmir are responsible to implement the law," he said. "For the future of the children, we want them to go to school, not to work. This is the responsibility of the government; this is the responsibility of the parents." Flexible schooling that caters to working children was one way of making sure some kids did not miss out on an education and programs offerings vocational training as well as traditional subjects, said a spokesman for Save the Children. "Many children go to school they actually learn to read and write, but there's no job for them. There's no more job for them than if they couldn't read or write," he said. He said that while it was entrenched in Kashmir culture and religion that children should be in school, it had become socially acceptable to send them to work because families had become so desperate. Filmmaker Bilal A. Jan whose documentary – The Lost Childhood – was recently screened at the Teheran international short film festival, calls child labour an economic problem. I think child labour in Kashmir is more of an economic problem than social. Even before the eruption of militancy 19 years ago, we've had a huge number ofchild labourers," Jan said, referring to the 1981 census, according to which the number of child workers stood at 109,000. The 32-minute documentary (in Kashmiri) shows the exploitation the children face. "They are forced to work for long hours but paid low wages. Many a time they don't get a penny," said Jan. He said he shot the documentary in different areas of the Valley for over a year during which he met the children, their parents, landlords for whom children work as labourers and government officials. "When we went shooting in Batmaloo bus stand, in the heart of Srinagar, where there are scores of children working in automobile workshops, we saw the Labour Commissioner's office right across. I have shown this (in the film). The officials thrashed our cameraman because they didn't want us to shoot them. We had to hide and shoot," he said. "At the end of the day I found that despite various laws, the practice of child labour continues unabated," Jan said. "I think the authorities seldom implement the laws. "I've highlighted the flaws in these laws" in the documentary, which was also screened at 10th Mumbai film festival early this year. He said he's been sending his film to international NGOs so that child labour is put to an end. "Immediate efforts are needed to check the menace, otherwise it will ruin the next generation of Kashmir," he said.

Seven-year-old Ajaz Ahmed is missing his two front teeth and wearing hooded overalls that are too small for him and have a tear in the bottom. He would like to be a teacher when he grows up, but for the past two years he has worked for a mechanic. "Generally I'm working repairing the cars," he said shyly, sitting on top of the new frame of a truck, holding a spanner. He attends school from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., then works at least eight hours - earning Rs 300 a week "I like school," said Ajaz, who has a sister and three brothers. "And I like to work here to have a good future."

The government immediately needs to make an objective-scientific understanding and assessment of issues and problems of children who are ‘prime victims of violence’. It also needs to formulate policy, which will cover other than normal problems of children besides implementation of specific programmes for overall wellbeing and comprehensive rehabilitation of militancy-effected children.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and his email is