In January this year, hoping to make some money, 16-year-old Babu Lal Sahariya left his home in Sakara village in southern Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district and headed for the jungles of the adjoining state of Rajasthan. It was his eighth trip. His new job would require him to walk 30 km every day grazing cattle in return for two meals and Rs 2000 a month. Babu Lal is one of hundred children belonging to the Sahariya tribe from the district who work as bonded labourers in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan.
HT found that the Sahariyas, one of the 75 scheduled tribes in the country classified as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (earlier known as primitive tribal groups), are now so desperately poor that families have been pushing their children into modern day slavery in the hope of saving them from starvation. In exchange for paltry sums ranging between Rs 2000 and Rs 6000 a month, parents have been handing over their children to men who then transport them to different states. Of course, written contracts are unheard of.
Cut off from their families, the children work for an indefinite number of hours and often do not know when they will be permitted to return. But conditions at home are so grim that a number of children are eager to escape through work of this sort. “We Sahariyas are more than happy to make an honest living here in the village. But lately, due to price rise and various government policies, our lives have changed,” said Kundan Sahariya, 60, of Sakara village. A maze of narrow lanes, open drains, and shanties with thatched ceilings, Sakara is a nondescript place with no electricity supply. Electricity poles, however, hold out some hope. Villagers have to walk three km to access the public transport that can take them to the nearest primary health care centre 35 km away. The district supply officer of Lalitpur confirmed that around 70 of the 100 families in the village have the antyodaya ration cards that are issued to families with an income of less than Rs. 250 per capita per month.
According to the 2001 census, 88.8% of UP’s scheduled tribe (ST) population is rural. The Sahariyas were traditionally dependent on agriculture, the sale of forest produce and the rearing of livestock. “In the last two decades, their access to forests and common lands has become increasingly limited due to the demands of wildlife conservation and economic growth. As a consequence, the Sahariyas are increasingly depending on wage labour for subsistence,” said Asmita Kabra, associate professor, School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD) who has worked extensively with the community.
Distribution of land holding size among STs in the state is highly skewed. More than 50% of the farmers belong to marginal category with land holding size of 0.49 hectare, noted the state irrigation department. “This is compounded by bad quality of land. Investing on land in such regions is not wise as the return is zero,” said Vasudev, director, Bundelkhand Sewa Samiti, a grassroot organisation working with the Sahariyas.
Today, the villagers of Sakara depend on farming, selling tendu leaves and such government welfare schemes as MNREGA. Farming is often difficult as the area has little irrigation and MNREGA work has not been very helpful as payments are irregular, say villagers. To make ends meet and also to ensure that the children are at least fed, the tribe has been resorting to sending them away. While some villagers say kids have been sent out for the last decade or so, others who are apprehensive about media coverage insist the trend is only about two years old. “The authorities should criminalise non- payment of wages. Without it, landlords and other influencers will continue to exploit such communities,” says Chandan Kumar, National Co-Ordinator, Bonded Labour Eradication Programme, Action Aid.
In May, based on a complaint filed by the NGO Action Aid, the National Human Rights Commission sent a notice to the Lalitpur district magistrate, who constituted a team to look into the matter. Subsequently, based on the testimonies of villagers, the police have brought back five minors from Mainpuri (UP) and Jalaun (MP). Two of the four men named in the FIR as traffickers were arrested from the Girar area of Lalitpur and have been booked under section 370 of criminal law (amendment) act which prescribes life imprisonment for trafficking of minors, juvenile justice act and bonded labour act. “It took us three days to trace the children as they kept on moving. There were no specific leads. We just had a few phone numbers,” said Vipin Kumar Mishra, additional superintendent of police. In interviews with members of the Child Welfare Committee, all five children said they had set out willingly to work and that they would happily go again. What this clearly means is that conditions at home in Sakara are so horrible that even hard labour seems more inviting. The children to whom HT spoke ask for very little. They do not mind working on their arduous jobs far from home as they were guaranteed two meals a day. Poor and illiterate parents who are ignorant about child labour laws say they have no option but to make their children work in inhuman conditions.
I would have died of hunger: Sanju Sahariya
Sanju Sahariya was 14 when he left his village for the first time to accompany a man to Madhya Pradesh. “We boarded a bus to Lalitpur. From there, we took a train to Jhansi. This was followed by a road journey and then three hours walk deep into the jungle,” Sanju says recalling that on that first trip he ended up in UP’s Jalaun district, 250 kms north of Lalitpur.
“During the first few days, I cried in pain,” Sanju said, pointing to his withered legs.
In the jungle, the day began at 4am and went on until 9 am when the children got an hour-long break. The next shift is from 10am to 5 pm. “Each of us is responsible for around 500 sheep,” says Sanju who stayed in the forest for eight months during his last trip. He was paid Rs 3500 a month. “Here, I will die of hunger. In the jungle, we get food and occasionally, milk and curd also. I am itching to go back,” says Sanju who has just two pairs of clothes and does not remember when he last went to school. Home is a shanty with a handful of utensils and a cot. Two meals a day are rare and he usually subsists on chapatis with salt or onion on the side.
After Sanju’s father Ram Lal’s crop was destroyed, he incurred him a loss of Rs 10,000. He needed another Rs 7,000 to repay the loan he took to buy a water pump to irrigate his 2.5 acre plot of land. “Had I not sent off my son to work, my family of eight would have died of hunger. If the government thinks this is wrong, it should tell us how to survive,” says Ram Lal.
Walking 20 km a day when he should be in school: Jaalam Sahariya
Jaalam Sahariya is not sure about his son Brijesh’s age. “It should be between 12 and 14 years. You look at him and decide for yourself,” he says, pointing at the boy sitting next to him. Brijesh has an inflated stomach, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. “This is how he becomes when he does not get his dose of gutka,” says Jaalam. For three years, the father of five observed other families sending their kids away to work. Last year, he thought Brijesh was old enough to earn and asked one of the boys to take him along.
Like children help their families run their businesses, his son too was also helping him in a time of distress, Jaalam says as he rolls tendu leaves. A hundred bundles will get him Rs 75.
What about MNREGA? He says numerous pleas to the village head for payment for MNREGA work went unheeded. It is common for the village head to keep villagers’ job cards, making it easy to fudge them.
Like Ram Lal, Jaalam had taken a loan (Rs 39,000) to buy an irrigation pump and pipes. “I had two options - commit suicide or send my son to work. I chose the latter,” he says.