"Child Labor"

I was going to Maddi Lala’s shop for some toiletries. On the way, first I saw the family with 3 little sons. Two of them playing, and the eldest one – 8 year old, breaking stones. First comment in head was of course the clichéd child labor pity – poor kid, he should be playing, he is breaking stones with hammers. I did not click his picture. I guess we have seen enough of pictures/videos/stories on this, and there’s no need to expose the plight of these children any more to establish that child labor is pretty much prevalent in India. In a while, his dad arrived. I did not act like an NGO guy, by telling that what the hell was he doing, his son was not supposed to do the labor etc etc. Rather, I casually and curiously enquired, “school ni jaainch” (Did the children not go to school today?).

He replied, “nai saab jaate hai school, ab pahunche thodi der pehle”. I was wondering what else the child could do now in the village in this period after school. This is one of the poorest families I have ever seen. Asking the children to read something after school would have been too much of a demand. Parents have do not have education or enthusiasm to sit with their kids with books. The children can’t really play all the time after school. It was tough to conclude if it was really child labor. His dad would earn some money by selling those stones. Who knows how much of that money will be used in alcohol and how much in buying even a candy (forget clothes etc.) for the kid? Of course this scene was running totally counter to the Child Protection that our NGO focuses on. On one hand, child could hit his hand anytime with hammer and stones. On the other hand, the child might be experienced enough by now to carry this task seamlessly without any danger.
With these thoughts I reached Maddi Lala’s shop some 10 metres away. There a very young boy was sipping tea and having a cream roll. He was taking lunch-break from his tasks of walking all day selling saree and rugs. The conversation went like this:

“Kahan rehte ho tum”
“Mehelchori”
“subha khane ka kya karte ho”
“subha kaun banaaye.. subha kuch nahi karte”
“subha khaana khaate hi nahi ho”
“na”
“aise hi nikal padte ho..? fir saare din kya karte ho?”
“aise hi samaan bechte hain ghar ghar mein”
“paidal chalte ho saare din?”
“haan”
“fir yahan kisi dukaan pe chaay pee lete ho, hain? Raat ko khaate ho?”
“haan haan”
“hotel main?”
“na na, raat ko pakate hain to, kamre pe”
“umr kitn hai tumhari?”
“16 saal”
“kab se kar rahe ho yeh?”
“ho gaye 3-4 saal”
“gaon kahan hai tumhara?”
“muzaffar nagar”
“ghar mein aur bhai behen bhi hain”
“haan haan, sab hai to, sab mazdoori dhyadi karte hain”
“school… kahan tak padhe?”
Laughs, “ZERO”
“hain?”
“school mein padha hi nahi kabhi.. ghar mein khoob koshish ki padhaane ki, main school se bhaag jata tha.. man nahi lagta tha school.. padhai mein”

Now I was speechless for sometime. I understand that this boy started the work at the age of around 13. He has never been to school and had no interest either. Who is responsible for this ‘child labor’? Is it the boring school that could not entice him to education? But then many other would have studied in the same school. Is it the parents, who could not engage him in something else at home, where he could have at least gotten two times meal? What could parents possibly do in family of 7 children, who are currently pooling in money at home, may be for sisters’ wedding or household expenses. Parents do not work, this boy told me. I can’t figure out what sustainable help can be extended to make this boy’s life better. Does he himself feel that his life needs to be bettered? In the small conversation I had with him, he never sounded complaining. If this labor is taken away from away from him, what will he do? I guess if there’s something that one can do for him, then it would be making him have breakfast somehow. Either he himself prepares or buys. He carries that heavy sack of rug on his back all day walking up and down hill. He might end up becoming anemic. Now I might be accused of underestimating the boy. And on the top of that, if he gets into alcohol/smoking (in case he hasn’t already), then that will complete the damage.

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From the platform

I was waiting for my train to Haldwani. After standing for half an hour, my legs could not bear any more, after all I had been carrying that heavy , almost 10 Kg, back pack in and around the Old Delhi Railway station. Plus, I had just heard the announcement that train was 2 hours late and it was terribly cold that night. So, I looked around the place I was standing to find any seating arrangement. Just next to me was a group of people, apparently a family from Bihar. They had some cloth laid out on ground, and on that they were all lying covered with blankets. I requested one of them to let me sit on a small patch of cloth. The guy said, “arrey poochne ki kaa baat hai, baith jaaiye”. One of the women in group gave a tiny smile, as a sign of approval perhaps. Initially, only half of my ass was on cloth, slowly I made my way to gain little more of cloth under me, as not only my payjama was getting soiled, I was shivering from the cold from ground. I kept waiting for my train, and the announcer kept adding grace period to wait time. From 2 hours, it was now 3 hours and 45 minutes. The family continued to sleep. Sometime, one of them would accidentally hit me with his feet and then apologize. In every half an hour, a police man from Delhi police will come and hit them with his shoes and will not apologize. He would shout at them and probe them with feet like they are animals. That’s the value of human life. I was getting angry, but the recent incident from Delhi Govt Dispensary was still fresh in my memory. I was thinking how many things can I alone set right. There were many other ‘educated’, ‘high society’ people around who were watching this and did not bother to object.

But the main purpose of sharing this experience is somewhat deeper. This family allowed me to sit next to them on their cloth. They wouldn’t have said anything even if I had sat without asking for permission. When my train arrived, and I got up and said Shukria, the guy from the family said, “arrey bhai aapka bhi samay kat gaya, hamara bhi!”. I don’t think any of my friends from city circle (IIT, MNC’s, English educated etc etc) would have let a stranger sit next to their family. It’s tougher when that stranger is male-bachelor and dressed as a rustic. In many places in Delhi, such men are called chhada (often used to refer to labor migrated from Bihar).A couple of months back, I am sure I myself wouldn’t have allowed that. We become concerned about privacy and safety of the family. What is it with our education and modernization and our middle or upper class society that we tend to be drifted away from the concept of ‘vasudhev kutumbam’ (whole earth is a family) in practice as we ‘prosper’ and ‘progress’ and gain more status? We tend to keep ourselves and our dear ones more guarded from ‘others’ and more boundaries are created. In fact, a couple of months back, I am very sure, the first remark that would have echoed in my head after seeing that family would have been,“kahan se aa jaate hain, saara rasta bloc kar dete hain”, forget about sitting next to them. This family is one of the many families one can find every night on the platforms of Indian Railways. These are the people who travel in general compartment. Because of delays in trains, and because they have nowhere else to go and wait, they lay down on the platform and destroy the aesthetics of stations. At a time when railways do not have a decent waiting room even for people with sleeper class reservation, such families will have to wait a couple of decades for better conditions for themselves on stations.

Where will it all end finally?

I was watching a show on Discovery in which they were showing the modes of transport of future. The mode of transport was shown primarily to be AIR! Jet packs would be used to move from one place to another. People would be able to evade traffic hassles by easily flying over small distances instead of commuting by roads.
Cool. New innovation, huh? Similar optimism must have been expressed a couple of centuries back when road transport was introduced? It’s in big mess today everywhere. We ate up all lands. On the modern road, where vehicles move today, many years ago, those were the roaming grounds of animals. But we chased them away by killing their habitats and making roads for us. Now we want to chase the birds too away by making more intrusions (apart from Planes) into their roaming air. Does this hunger to save time lead us anywhere? Once it becomes affordable and practical, even jet packs will see Traffic lights hanging in the air. But what after air? I guess we will then spoil other planets from scratch as we did to earth.

Swades Ki Khoj – Madhyantar

Let me begin by wishing everyone a very blissful new year. I hope you are in great health and mood.I have spent 6 months in Swades Ki Khoj, instead of sharing experiences individually with friends through emails, let me try to express it here.

My experiences in swades ki khoj had been quite great so far. This discovery was not some one moment. I have had experiences in the past few months which all form this discovery. Changes have started happening without me being consciously aware of them. When I return from morning run, and I see some old woman breaking stones in a corner, my eyes become wet. I feel dwarfed and overwhelmed when I see an old woman bringing loads of fodder or fuel wood on her back, yet managing to give a smile when I wish her Namaste. I am valuing money more than ever before. I have made friends with people who by conventional wisdom are from a world totally different from mine. For example I became friends with Mukesh in Ashram plainly because of the fact that we are both human beings and we have a common language and I need another human being in the Ashram to see and talk to. There’s no hidden agenda or expected returns in such friendship. I am glad I could experience such unique form of friendship.

Around Deepwawali, I stayed in Mehergaon with Pradhan Hoshiyar’s family. That time of around a week was one of the best times I had. I tilled land and had break fast with the family in the field in sunshine, sitting on the same ground which had given the manduwa few months back, whose chapatti I was having there. It was a divine feeling. It was the closest I got to food we eat. I hadn’t even seen a ladyfinger plant before the internship. Pradhan Ji’s 5 tiny daughters appeared one after the other before me like von trapp children of Sounds of Music! One of them still says, ‘mujhe chacha ki khudi lag gayi’. The unconditional love that the family began showering in no time was overwhelming. Even the village became so much familiar with me that when I returned here again after some time (to see ashtabali mela to actually witness animal sacrifice) they all recognized me, although I couldn’t identify them! It was really like a home coming. My village is in Haryana where I last visited at least a decade back. No one lives there any more. I am glad that now I have a village to call my own.

Apart from this I have been going to many other villages in different clusters to speak with farmers. What has been most enlightening is the dialogue with the elderly. I try to hear their perspective on such things as ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. It’s interesting to know how they feel when I tell them that India is growing or that we are in 21st century. But I haven’t had enough of this. I am still hungry for more of Gairsain! I feel that I have fallen in love with Garhwal and more so with the huge hill in front of campus which I always want to embrace! People are so hospitable that I feel extremely swept over when after I have food in some home, the people in that home apologize with me for any thing I disliked. God, I see god in them! I wonder which world are these people from? Is it the same India where I lived in 6 months back? In fact when someone speaks with discourtesy, I found that almost in 100% cases, the person is from Dehradun or Delhi!

I recently attended a mid-term review workshop of Swades Ki Khoj at Chirag. It was interesting to see what others had been doing. Every one has changed in some way! Many people are more confused now including me! Earlier I would think of getting into music/ theatre/ journalism/ Air force. Now, after discovering more of myself in this internship, I am having more career interests! – NGO, IAS, doing my own business in this area, I hope confusion gets resolved in the coming months!

Now I plan to see Kumbh Mela in haridwar for the first time. These mystic things have become subjects of my interests. I am giving benefit of doubt to these things which I would earlier plainly reject as irrationalities or blind faiths, may be because of strong faith and culture of people.

linguistically speaking

Savita is one of the few people who has offered me alternative line of thought. Few days back, she showed me a perspective that I could not find myself in an obvious manner. She asked why I talked in English with Mohit Ji from Plan. This is the kind of thing I look forward to while I am with SBMA to actually get moved. Of course I do get to learn from everyone both from village or the NGO. But learning something that I myself could not learn directly is priceless. Generally people in NGO would be submissive and nod yes with whatever I say. But I am glad Savita put a question before me that made me to think. Plus I was tired of such submission all around me. When I thought deeply I realized she was right.

Yesterday when I was talking to Akanksha from Plan, I was consciously making efforts not to speak in English. But I found myself speaking in English every now and then, and on such realizations I immediately switched to Hindi. Thus, it was a game of hide and seek between English and Hindi. This gave me a clue why I spoke with Mohit Ji or with Nishita or Shruti or Prateek from Swades in English. Actually Akanksha was speaking in English. I guess she was also making little efforts to toggle. But mostly she spoke in English. That made me speak in English. Same happened with others too. It just comes onto tongue naturally. I naturally do not talk in English while I am in village or with NGO people.

Climate Change

We have started feeling the heat of climate change in a diffused form when we feel disheartened on not finding something we expected. It is usually associated with tourism. For example, all our lives, we learnt that hills are cool and that it snows there every winter. But often people visit the conventionally cooler places and end up getting dejected on seeing their beliefs turning false. I went to Joshimath so that I could visit Auli too and enjoy winters there. But unfortunately, there was very less snow. There was no point of going to Auli as snow wasn’t good enough for skiing. Even the films and songs that we indulged in while growing up, showed hills to be some kind of paradise. For instance, there was a song from the film Ram teri Ganga maili ho gayi, which said, “husna pahdaon ka, kya kehna ke baron mahine, yahan mausam jaadon ka” , meaning that hills are so beautiful because they have winters all 12 months. Although the song is still a rage in hills, but since the time when this song was written, climate has undergone dramatic change and it’s not so wintery any more. I get up every morning expecting to see some snow here, but even though it’s January time, there’s no snow. My acquaintances from plains keep trying to confirm that it is freezing cold here, but they too feel surprised when I tell them that weather is alright. It’s not that cold. In fact it is colder in Delhi and other surrounding places of northern India. That cold is evident in my mom’s voice when she calls me.

I imagine how much disappointed our kids would be when they will see no characteristics of weather they read in books or watch in films when they actually visit such a place. Even the notion of ‘river’ has changed. Often while travelling I see some water body which natives of that place refer to as river, but to me it doesn’t look like anything more than liquid spill. It will be sad if kids were to see rivers and trees and green pastures only in books and photos. I can see at least some snow, albeit in farther hills. But I doubt my kids will see even that much snow. I am still an outsider in hills. My disappointment is temporary. After I go back to Delhi, I might forget it all. But for the people in villages here different types of weathers have strong connection with the life and culture here. Their festivals are associated with different seasons. They look forward to play in snow every year. Even though it is cold, they enjoy snow as it’s a part of their calendar. They make makeshift boards and do snow boarding. These people must be deeply saddened with this varying pattern of weather.

I guess people are not so active in preserving climate even now because, climate change hasn’t been strong enough to hit the very existence of lot of people in an obvious manner. Droughts and floods in unlikely places are of course result of climate change only. But such causal relationship is not obvious enough for a common man to become sensitive and take action. Humans anyway have strongest tendency to adapt, so if the change is not very huge and quick, people can get used to such things as falling rainfall or lack of snow. As long it is not as widespread and obvious as some kind of epidemic, people will not respond much on a large scale for example carrying out districts wide forestation. But people should learn from their follies. They should not wait for a crisis to actually hit their door for them to get their a** moving. I think environmentalists too will not do harm if they create an atmosphere of fear which can force people to become active in saving climate.