Playing with the other residents of a children’s shelter home in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district, Sumit Singh says he doesn’t want to return to his family.
His father, says the 12-year-old, sold him and his younger brother for a year to a shepherd from Rajasthan who made them look after his sheep and beat the siblings frequently while leaving them underfed.
Lal Singh, a farmer and father of the two children, was burdened by a heavy debt and crop loss, suffering like thousands of India’s agriculturists who depend on a fickle monsoon while dealing with low rural incomes and weak global food prices.
He first traded a pair of bulls for Rs 33,000 about eight months ago and then the two boys for Rs 35,000, hours after their sister had tied the sacred threads of rakhi to their hands, the children said.
"The shepherd would get angry on trivial issues and beat us. If a goat went astray, we were thrashed. He used to send us far away to fetch water, while he slept. My brother’s fingers are still swollen from the beating," 11-year-old Amit Singh, Sumit’s brother, told HT at the shelter home.
The children met 15-year-old Mohit, a resident of their native village also sold by his parents for Rs 12,000 to the shepherd who had brought his sheep for grazing to Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district.
When things became unbearable, Amit and Mohit took courage and escaped. They ran next to the railway tracks for nearly 50 km before authorities found them and took them to the shelter in their home district.
Police rescued Sumit on Friday and arrested the shepherd who had moved to Harda district.
"We don’t want to return to our family. We want to study here. Our parents are poor. My father had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh for constructing a tube well for our dry farmland. But he couldn't repay it," he said.
Khargone collector Neeraj Dubey told HT over the phone that the matter was being investigated and action was likely against the parents who had sold their children into labour.
"I have instructed my officials to check the backgrounds of the families to see whether they are in a position to take care of their children," he said. "I will get legal opinion on this case to decide what sort of action and under which sections would be taken against these parents."
Superintendent of police in Harda Prem Babu Sharma said a case was lodged against the shepherd under Section 370 A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with slavery.
Officials said there were no reports of any other such cases. “But they might have been happening earlier too,” Dubey added.
(With inputs from Mahendra Thakur. Children’s names changed)