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Jung exposes national shame

Though Lost Spring reveals horrors of child labour, it offers few solutions, writes Mishty Varma.

books Updated: Nov 17, 2005 15:26 IST

Lost Spring
Stories of stolen childhood
by Anees Jung
Penguin
Pages: 125
Price: Rs 195
Non-fiction
Paperback

When I picked up Anees Jung’s latest book, and saw that its blurb claimed it to be about child labour, I was intrigued.

Lost Spring is riveting and revelatory, and escapes from being a dry report thanks to Ms Jung’s evocative language.

The first few stories are predictable – children coming to cities to work as domestic helpers, or cleaning/serving at dhabas, or helping in carrying loads at construction sites. Then come the horrifying stories, such as the story of Idrees. Idrees had been kidnapped while grazing cattle, taken to a nondescript and ill-lit place in Mirzapur where he and other boys like him were tied to looms and made to knot carpets. Any recalcitrance was rewarded with merciless thrashing – at times with whips and metal tools. Most of these boys – Idrees included – lost their memories. These boys were saved only when their prison/workplace was raided by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude.

The stories become progressively shocking as they detail the lives of children who have had to leave their villages (at times, with their families) for reasons as varied as caste, religion, overbearing poverty and sheer lack of prospects. Devoid of any means of monetary and familial support, these children are now laid open to commercial, physical and even sexual depredations.

There is a terrible despair pervading most of the incidents. An alcoholic father, or a paralysed mother, or an illiterate ill-favoured sister of marriageable age, or even a family trade (such as nomadic peddlers of medicinal herbs and roots) that has no takers. The only way to negotiate the drudgery that is the lives of these children is by shouldering an adult’s burden.

But Lost Spring ends on a note of hope. Ms Jung writes of schools started by retired government servants (such as Mutthi Bhar Anaaj Ke School – A school for a fistful of grain), social activists and NGOs. Sadly, schools such as these are the initiatives of a few and although they are well-attended, they lack adequate funds for their continued running, as many of the teachers bemoan.

However, I felt that Ms Jung’s solution – of formal schooling for children – was too simple for the situations of these children. The root cause of child labour (as Ms Jung pointed out) is poverty, but there are no solutions mentioned in the book for that. In this aspect, I found the writer’s suggestions for these children rather insufficient. Children would be literate, yes, but what of the day-to-day hand-to-mouth existence of theirs?

We all know that the Government has done good work in allowing a mid-day meal scheme for school attendees, but far more wholesome incentives have to be given to them that they leave their very adult burdens behind and become the children that they really are.

Ms Jung’s writing is extremely lucid, but to tackle a subject like child labour – an issue that is fairly straightforward yet, at the same time, has stemmed from a complex web of cause-and-effect – requires a very in-depth perspective which goes beyond the humanitarian. I did not think the writer was able to achieve that perspective.

First Published: Nov 09, 2005 16:20 IST