Seventeen-year-old Aman has spent his teenage so far rearing cattle and toiling at a farm in Gurdaspur, Punjab. He would have joined college this year had he stayed home that morning six years ago.
Aman was abducted from near Shalimar Bagh in Delhi when he was going for tuition. He woke up at a farmhouse hundreds of kilometres away and was forced into agricultural labour. He worked for 16 hours a day till he managed to run away last month.
He is among hundreds of boys kidnapped from Delhi every year to be sold off to rich landlords by traffickers. The sad part is that families buying these boys believe they are giving them a better life. “I was forced to learn Punjabi and they hardly gave me any food or money. They woke me up at 5am daily and then locked me in a room again at 11pm without a ten-minute break during the day,” Aman told counsellors after his rescue.
After several attempts to flee, the owners of the farm had let dogs loose on him. But he succeeded in breaching the fence one day and got help from army personnel to reach Delhi.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had estimated in 2007 that two-third of the country’s child labour force was engaged in agriculture. That number has only increased since then. Children are stolen from the city and sold for anything between Rs. 10,000 and a lakh mainly in villages of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.
“There were two children who reached the Old Delhi Railway Station from Ballia in Bihar two years ago. They were caught by traffickers and put to work at a dhabha nearby. They ran from there but were caught again and taken to Meerut to work in sugarcane fields,” said Rakesh Senger, who heads the rescue team at Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
According to Senger, it’s a growing racket whose existence and enormity becomes known only when a child is rescued.
Thousands of children go missing from Delhi every year. Those trafficked land up in sex trade, begging and now at farms in neighbouring states.
“Often children do not understand they are being exploited. Ask them if they were ever taken for an outing. They share how the owner once let them sit in a jeep and be driven around the farm,” said Senger.
A decline in the number of agricultural labourers due to migration to cities and the convenience of employing a child has led landlords to get in touch with traffickers. “Children are silent workers. They can work for long hours at less pay. Their dexterity and nimble fingers are particularly used in fields of Bt Cotton,” said Soha Moitra, Director, Child Rights and You.
She blamed the loopholes in the Child Labour Act, which does not ban employing children aged between 14 and 18 years in non-hazardous activity, for increase in such cases.
“Agriculture is not considered hazardous. So children above 14 years can be engaged on farms. Also, there is a lack of regulation. The ministries of agriculture and labour should work together on this issue,” she said.
Often such cases end with the rescue of a child. The employers seldom face action due to a lack of will and coordination among the police in different states.
(Names of children have been changed to protect identity)