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On May 24, more than 450 children were rescued by the Railway Protection Force at Palakkad railway station in Kerala. The children — mostly between five and 12 years — were on their way to a ‘school’ in Mukkam town. The incident created an uproar; several politicians of Jharkhand and Kerala called it a case of child trafficking. Children have since been returning to their homes, or have been waiting for family elders to take them back.
Most of the children are from the far-flung districts of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal; 120 of them are from Jharkhand’s Godda district, one of the most backward in the state. Mohammed Jehangir of Laitha village and Abdul Razzaq of Lougain village are two parents whose children are still stranded at the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage. While Jehangir has booked his train tickets to Kerala, a place he has never visited, Razzaq doesn’t have the money to bring back his seven-year-old son.
What prompted the mass transfer of the children? All fingers point to one Shakeel Ahmed, a resident of Kaithpura, a remote village, some 30 km from Godda town. His story reveals just how desperate rural Indians are to provide their children with a decent shot at education, however minimal, and an escape from a life of grinding poverty.
The road to Kaithpura is lined with date and palm trees that guard farmlands awaiting the monsoon. Women in saris go about their daily chores; the kids, sun burnt and half clad, play outside mud plastered houses in the searing heat. Sending small children away is not a new thing for the residents of these villages, say parents. Every poor household in Godda’s villages has been sending their children away to study. They are sent to madrasas across the country, to nearby Bhagalpur (Bihar), Akalkuan (Maharashtra), Hyderabad, Delhi, Deoband and Shamli (UP). But what has made Kerala such a draw?
Around five years ago, say villagers, Ahmed went around telling everyone about a certain school in Kerala that offers good education and hostel facilities almost free of cost. “He said the school would take care of our kids until they became doctors or engineers,” said one parent. “He said we just needed to pay once for their travel and that they’d be taken care of from then on,” said another. The promise of free boarding and education, that too with an emphasis on deeni taleem (religious education), made for the perfect pitch. Soon, a few parents handed their kids to Ahmed. They did not ask him about the destination or for details about the journey from Godda.
Murgiyachak village, for instance, sent 19 kids to Kerala this year. Most were between five and 10 years old. “Who doesn’t want their child to become a doctor or an engineer? Everyone was sending their kids, so we did too and, it was for free,” says Mohd. Murshid of Murgiyachak who sent his six-year-old daughter to Kerala.
It’s clear that abject poverty and the lack of a proper education are the primary reasons for sending kids away. “When it gets difficult to feed our children, how do you expect us to pay for their education?” asks an anxious Razzaq.
Officials have a different take. “It is a combination of greed and acute poverty that makes these villagers give their young ones away. Life is easier for them when someone offers to take care of the children,” says Godda Child Welfare Committee officials PK Singh and Ritesh Kumar before commenting: “These people have a lot of kids so it hardly makes a difference to them if one or two children are sent to an orphanage.”
The terrible poverty plaguing the region is evident from the fact that in every village we visited, most of the young men had left in search of work. Many end up as unskilled labour in cities. The tube-well or canal irrigation system easily visible in the northern plains is absent here, which is unusual for a population that depends largely on agriculture. Even the land holding share per family hardly turns up enough produce. Average ownership of the farms range from 5 to 10 katthas (0.25 to 0.5 bigha), which results in produce worth `7,000 to `11,000 per year, that too only if the monsoon is good.
Central schemes like MGNREGA have had some visible impact. Roads, ponds and wells have been constructed but villagers allege that many haven’t received their payment even though, under MGNREGA, a worker should be paid within two weeks.
“To milk funds from the government or from donors in the Gulf countries, these orphanages started getting kids from remote reaches when they realised that they couldn’t find orphans in Kerala,” says an official of the Kerala crime branch investigating in Godda. “We’ve found a big network of agents operating across Godda, Bhagalpur and Banka districts and this is just one orphanage that is under investigation. Several organisations, including Christian missionaries and Hindu groups also get children from this region.”
The investigating team has booked the agents arrested under Section 23 (Juvenile Justice Act) and Section 370 (5) (IPC), which translates into punishment for cruelty to juveniles or children. However, not one child who went to Kerala this time or even earlier reported any cruelty or abuse. Mohd. Kalimuddin whose two children have been going to the same orphanage for the past two years doesn’t want to bring them back.
“I’ve been to the Mukkam madrasa and the facilities provided there are much more than what we can ever provide here. The only extra study thing is Malayalam but I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. When we ask him why he would allow his children to live in an orphanage as orphans when their parents are alive, he grows furious. “A poor man who doesn’t have money to buy food, what would you call him? Someone who doesn’t have a proper shelter what would you call him? When the government has skinned someone alive [with its policies] what would you call him? Isn’t it like being an orphan?” he asks.
It had started drizzling by the time we finished speaking to the villagers and we sought shelter in one of the crumbling mud-walled houses. “These houses crumble when it pours. You should write about our living conditions. Then they’ll know why we send our kids outside,” a woman says. The circumstances might be negative, but the incident, the villagers said, has at least forced the media to visit. “Damkal tabhi dekhne ko milta hai jab apne hi ghar me aag lagta hai (You get to see a fire fighting truck only when your own house is on fire),” chuckles Mohd. Murshid, her neighbour.