Every day, nine-year-old Sawma sets out on a two-kilometer trek to the main market to sell cigarettes and household goods in this Mizoram capital. He has no other choice—to support his sick mother and his siblings.
To that extent, he is not a child worker, who the Indian government has outlawed. This, however, does not detract from the fact that the practice is rampant—but not forced—in this northeastern state, where hundreds of kids work in tea stalls and in myriad other occupations.
"They are not forced to work but family conditions make them work," said Vanramchhuangi, a member of the child welfare committee and president of Aizawl based Human Rights and Law Network.
"The Supreme Court has directed that laws on child labour should be upheld sternly but we are at a loss how to uphold it. If we do that, it will mean starving the poor families," Vanramchhuangi said.
Laws alone are not the answer, another NGO says.
"Upholding the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act strictly in Mizoram will not solve our problem. Children in Mizoram are working in order to earn money for their sick parents and some to support their education. If we prohibit them, more problems will arise," said Mahlimi Hmar, a psychologist with the Centre for Peace and Development.
Sawma agrees. "If they stop me from working, I won't have money for my education and my family," he said.
According to Sawma, his idol was another boy from the Ramhlun Veng locality here who also sells cigarettes to support his education.
"He got a first division in the matriculation examination," Sawama added.