"The zari work does not require child labour," says Mohammad Saddam Hussain, 12, with a lightness that is indicative of his natural age. His insight, however, has a richness of an aspiring insider. "The zari work is so tedious that no adult will take it up if he is not trained early in childhood."
In Hussain's analysis, therefore, high instances of child labour in zari workshops are not due to the poverty of families who send pre-teen sons to work in city-based zari-embroidery workshops. It is the need of the zari industry to catch young boys to turn them into submissive adult labour. Child labour in this case is a rite of passage, reports Grassroots Features.
The city-based working space where this initiation takes place is a brutal school. It demands a great deal and gives little in return. The zari industry exploits the innocence of a hungry child without remorse.
When the child grows into adult labour, the skill attained is little solace given the stakes involved. When a child is first picked up by a contractor or seth (workshop owner), he is promised a rosy future. But the shattering of illusions begins soon.
The seth pays as little as Rs.20 a week - not as remuneration, which for a year or two is not even discussed, children surviving the zari workshops allege. The pittance is for expenses. Any further demands are met by severe thrashing. Workshop space often is dingy and doubles as living quarters.
The seth's language is generally abusive. He makes them work from morning to night, with a little break in between. Arun, 10, says: "Twice a day I was given food - once at 10 in the morning and at 12 midnight. Food was given late at night so that we could work longer hours."
There is little or no recreation, and opportunities for making contact with families are scarce. There is regular thrashing of children for irregular embroidery or a little show of defiance or irritation. "Electrical wire was used to beat me up," complains 14-year-old Naresh. A police party released Naresh after it swooped down on the underground workshop in which he was working in Delhi's Dadri.
Naresh and his friends are among 40 children residing now at the Dumra camp in Bihar's Sitamarhi district. Knowledgeable sources say Sitamarhi, adjoining Nepal, has high instances of children migrating to urban India for work. Most such migration does not translate into raised family income - there are no remittances - but reduced mouths to feed.
Naresh says he was fed up by the daily recrimination over food in his home in Bariyarpur village. "I wanted to contribute to the family income so I agreed to accompany Ayub Seth, who asked me to work in his zari workshop in Delhi and earn handsomely. I was tempted."
It was not an uncommon invitation. Many young friends had gone to work in zari workshops either in Mumbai or Delhi. The seths are one source of employment in an opportunity-scarce region. Without informing his parents, Naresh accompanied Ayub to Delhi.
"I just got angry with him one day and told him to find food for himself if he continues to loiter around," his mother discloses, with a tinge of regret. A disturbed house, an angry mother, an incapacitated father, a set of younger siblings, and a resource-less existence all combined to make Naresh an easy target. Once in Delhi, Ayub did get Naresh to phone his parents. That was the only sympathetic gesture before brutality penetrated their relationship. He was never again allowed to talk to his parents.
"Other children who complained of physical violence while phoning their parents were immediately taken to task by the seth." The kids mostly worked and slept in heaps on the workshop floor. They were forced to work even while suffering from fever or wounds. Sundays were grudgingly given as leave day.
Due to unhealthy living and work conditions, most suffered from skin diseases and irreparably damage to their eyes. Their bone-joints become loose in the absence of physical activity and constant squatting on the floor. Their hair is not cut but shaved to save money. Food quality is bad with rotten vegetables and watery pulses. The quantity is insufficient.
Naresh was freed from this cage by the police in February 2006. They took the children to Delhi's Tihar Jail and later to a children's remand home in Gurgaon, where Naresh stayed for about 16 days. 00The police then brought him to Muzaffarpur in Bihar, together with 27 Bihari and 25 Bengali children.
Sitamarhi's district magistrate (DM) personally went to Muzaffarpur to bring Naresh to the district headquarters, and on to the Pratham centre where he is staying since then. His parents came to visit and took him home. After a short stay with them, he returned to the centre at Dumra.
Why did he come back? "To study. I study maths, science, grammar, English...all these subjects here," Naresh says. He likes to play and make people laugh and aims to become chief minister - no less.