On a late July Monday, Harish Chand circled a city stoplight. A few tanned and sweaty school-aged children turned their attention from selling magazines and approached him smiling.
Their arms were piled high with copies of magazines and Chand told them to walk to the cement platform under the fly-over.
Chand works for the NGO Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action, or CHETNA. He regularly visits Delhi's intersections, usually bringing a first-aid kit for untreated wounds; sometimes he teaches basic math or runs a cricket match.
In Delhi's rapid, urban-based development, these children, largely ignored by authorities and overlooked by daily commuters, serve as a visible reminder of the division between this country's rising middle class and those left behind.
The juveniles live in a bureaucratic no man's land; no agency in Delhi's sprawling government claims direct oversight or responsibility for them. The companies, who do not hire street vendors directly, deny they use child labour but benefit from its outputs.
"We would intervene if the same children are sitting in a shop and selling magazines," Piyush Sharma, deputy Labour Commissioner, said. But the Child Labour Act does not explicitly prohibit street magazine sales by children.
He maintained the police have the authority to help them, something the Delhi Police refuted.
"The Labour Commission conducts the raids," said Rajan Bhagat, Delhi Police spokesman. "Any kind of labour, they are responsible."
At the intersection, traffic police ensured the safety of drivers and cyclists but ignored boys tapping on car windows and running across multiple lanes. A twelve-year-old selling Business and Economy said the police sometimes ask for Rs 100 or 200. His contractor pays them.
Child Welfare Committees, under the Department of Women and Child Development, are responsible for all exploited children, according to Bharti Sharma, Delhi's CWC chair. But she said the CWC cannot act without a filed complaint.
After a long hearing process, the CWC can return a child to his parents and grant access to a myriad of social welfare benefits.
Without a complaint, the CWC can do nothing. When Bharti Sharma was asked repeatedly if she could act upon personally seeing a child selling magazines on the street, she said no.
"I will not know those details. Those details will only be known to somebody who sees it everyday."
Most children Chand visited were from Bihar.
The children come here to escape poverty and earn money for their families. "The contractors in Delhi get in touch with the middlemen in Bihar with very lucrative offers of money as well as a better future for the children," said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan. "This is actually a large organised crime network."
Ribhu said parents receive money up front, sometimes Rs 500 or 1,000, and are promised more for each day the child works.
The children said the Rs 80-90 they make daily goes back to their parents, but they do not know how much is actually sent.
The boys, one as young as nine, wake up at 6 a.m., travel to their work site and stay until evening. All said they share a bedroom with about five other children. But CHETNA director Sanjaay Gupta said he has known as many as 15 children to live together.
Despite their working conditions and an expressed desire to go home, many were guarded about their lives. A few were evasive when asked their age, saying they did not know when they were born.
One suddenly shouted, "We don't take drugs." Two quickly volunteered that their contractor does not harm them. When a photographer took pictures, they covered their faces. One youth shook his fist and scowled.
Even with a complaint for the CWC, Gupta expressed fear some children may be worse off in ‘state homes’, where some go while they are processed, than in bonded labour.
"I feel so bad that I have put the child in there," said Gupta. "This is the dilemma. The best we can do is to empower the children."
(With inputs from Nivedita Khandekar)