Devli Kumari is anxious about her forthcoming trip to New York – not about addressing the United Nations General Assembly on child labour, but because she fears her name may be struck off the school rolls if she takes longer than the five-day leave sanctioned to get back.
The 11-year-old Jodhpur girl, born in a family of bonded labourers who worked as stone-cutters, began work at four. The family of six would wake at 3 am every day, and work in stone quarries at Charkhi Dadri in Bhiwani district of Haryana till 9 pm. For this, they were given a kilo of flour once in two days.
“As soon as a child was able to clasp a hammer, he/she was made to break stones and load them on trucks”, she says, rubbing a scar on the back of her left hand. “A stone once fell and I got hurt.”
Till they were rescued in 2004, Devli and her family had never eaten a fruit or lived in a shelter with electricity. “They asked me what kind of potato the banana was when I offered one to them. Onions and potatoes were all that they used to eat,” recalls Kailash Sathyarthi, the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the organisation that rescued Devli and her family.
They now live in accommodation provided by the Jodhpur district administration. Devli studies in Class 5 in Jodhpur's RSI Adarsha Primary School. Her track record is impressive - in 2004, she spoke at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, and in 2005 she attended the second World Children's Congress on child labour and education. “I want to learn English, I want to study till I'm at least 16 and become a teacher when I grow up,” she says. “It's considered a great thing in our community if you can read the numbers of buses and trains so that you are able to go where you want to on your own. And it's also easier to get a job if you're educated…" she then turns to her supervisor to tell her she wants to wear jeans and a t-shirt as well as a salwar kameez “but not without a chunni” for her UN meet.