IN these market-friendly times, the cheapest commodity available in this global supermarket of ours is, wonder of wonders, a human being. Johnson Solomon Nadar had to lend a meagre Rs 10,000 to get 10-year-old Balaram in exchange. The boy alleges that he was "mortgaged" for a loan his parents took to marry off his sister. Balaram and 33 others-16 of them under-fourteen-were rescued on July 6 by the police from Johnson Sweets, a chikki (peanut candy) factory owned by Nadar in Chiplun, Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.
The experience of working like slaves was no childs play for the boys, it was harrowing to say the least. Far away from their homes in Tamil Nadu, the children worked from three in the morning to nine at night, breaking for two ten-minute intervals, during which lunch and dinner were served-plain steamed rice, with the occasional dollop of chutney. Sweating in a tiny shed where the bhattis smouldered all day, they made chikkis and packaged them. Nadar had lured them from their village with the promise of a job and fair wages. But after the first month, the children knew better.
When J.P. Pandian went to meet Hariputhiran Kadakrai Pallan, he discovered that Pallan was a bonded labourer. He persuaded the 28-year-old to approach Shramjeevi, a grassroots organisation working for tribals and Dalits. With the help of Shramjeevi activists, Pallan filed an fir at the Chiplun police station on July 6, alleging that all the labourers, mostly children, had been forced to do maximum work at minimum or zero pay. "I was promised Rs 2,000 a month," he wrote in his police statement. "But no money was given to me or the others. Our arms bear marks of having been scalded with hot oil. The owners wife beat some of us with sticks, locking all our belongings into her cupboard."
Deputy superintendent Suresh Mengde and his team raided the sweet factory that night, rescuing 33 labourers. They were all from Srimangalam village, in Tamil Nadus Tutukudi district. "They were terrified when we got there," recalls Bhausaheb Londhe, who works for Samarthan, a Mumbai-based advocacy group. "But when we told them that we had come to free them, they started crying and laughing simultaneously." According to their accounts, one of the boys had tried to escape and had been brutally thrashed; the fear of never making it back to their village paralysed them.
After being presented before the Chiplun taluka magistrate the following day, the hapless workers were sent off to their village with police escort. A case has been registered under Section 16 of the Bonded Labour Act, Section 14 of the Prevention of Child Labour Act and Section 44 of the Juvenile Justice Act. The sweetshop manager, Arun Jabraj Tureraj Nadar, was arrested and is now out on bail. His brother-in-law, Johnson, was away when he was arrested. The police are following up a lead that he might be hiding in Goa.
Some local authorities suggest that a middleman purchased the children from their parents; others argue that impoverished families were compelled to send their kids away as debt-settlement. According to Balaram, his parents borrowed Rs 10,000 for their daughters wedding from Johnson, who also hails from Srimangalam village. In return, Balaram and his elder brother were brought to Chiplun, to work off the debt. Balaram, who was at the sweet-shop for one-and-a-half years, says that the children were not paid at all. Only at Christmas, they were given Rs 150.
Says Malathi Pillai of unicef: "Poverty has become an excuse to exploit the docile, cheap labour that children provide." According to unicef, there are about 110 million child labourers in the country; this includes children who are not in school, because every such child is a potential child worker.
Vivek Pandit, director of Samarthan, addressed a letter to Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and labour minister Husain Dalwai demanding a legal inquiry at the district level, denial of bail to the prime accused and a rehabilitation process coordinated with the Tamil Nadu government. In response, Union labour secretary L. Mishra has assured Rs 20,000 as compensation per child.
So far, Tutukudis district magistrate has awarded an immediate compensation of Rs 1,000 to each child; an additional Rs 9,000 has been promised to their families for their rehabilitation. Investigations are still on, in what is considered a first-time incident for Chiplun. Nevertheless, what happened at Johnson Sweets should be a reminder-that there are still millions of children out there, for whom redemption might come very late. If it comes at all.