Download India’s Constitution prohibits children younger than 14 from working in hazardous jobs.
But official records estimate over 20 million children work across the country.
Plenty of employers see them as cheap labour – and many children don’t have a clue about their rights.
Now children in the south can learn about that from Bhima Sangha: a union of, by and for working children.
The organisation Concerned for Working Children, based in southern Karnataka state, helped form the children’s union – the first one in Asia.
Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran travel to the state capital Bangalore to find out more.
It’s 5 in the morning – the vegetable market in east Bangalore is already very busy.
Hundreds of labourers carry heavy sacks full of vegetables on their backs.
11-year-old Mahesh, who goes by only one name, is sweating as he loads the sacks onto trucks.
Every day is a struggle for Mahesh.
After working at the market, he rushes to school, then heads home to finish his domestic chores and to somehow find time to study ... and then if there’s any time left, play with friends.
Mahesh says he has to do this to support his mother.
“My father is a drunkard. He wastes all the money that my mother earns, he buys alcohol out of what she makes as a rag picker – nearly 2 US dollars a day. Then he comes home and causes more trouble . It is very difficult for my mother. We’ve borrowed money from the money lender to build a new house, and we need to pay him back annually. So when I turned eight, she asked me if I could start working. I said okay. Sometimes I wish I were a rich kid, I wouldn’t have to worry about all this – I’d just go to school and have a first class life!”
Mahesh isn’t the only one.
According to unofficial records, there are approximately over 60 million children working in India – three times higher than the government number.
And many of them do hazardous jobs.
The police consider them criminals.
“Sometimes when we are working at the market, the police come and ask us, ‘How old are you? If you’re below 14 you’re not supposed to work.’ On some occasions some of my friends have been locked up, but the police don’t trouble us now. I always explain to them what my situation is at home... that I have to work. They ask us if we go to school, and we say ‘Yes’.
Mahesh is now one of 30 representatives of the Bhima Sangha children’s union in his ward in east Bangalore.
Mahesh gives the union credit for his new confidence and his understanding about the rights of child workers.
Every month, Union representatives meet to discuss many things – from children’s labour rights to other issues in their families and communities.
In this meeting, they’re talking about plans to celebrate Children’s Labour Day at the end of the month.
They want to put on plays and give speeches to help inform their fellow child workers.
The Union was initiated more than 20 years ago by the non-government organisation, Concerned for Working Children, based in Bangalore.
The organisation is now a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Nandana Reddy, founder of the organisation, says the Union’s main goal is to provide the children with alternative choices.
” Children should have choices and that children should not do work that is intolerable, that is harmful, that is hazardous. But children should have avenues where work and learning can go together. At least until poverty is eradicated. And, if I can’t eat, I need to work. There are many, many children in this country and I think in many countries who work to go to school. And so, work has to be first of all perceived in the right context.”
The Bhima Sangha union now has more than 13,000 working children as members, in rural and urban areas across the state.
And they have helped change state policy on child labourers’ working conditions.
The children also learn how to use clear arguments to push for solutions to their problems.
In one village the local government, called ‘panchayat’, refused to build a bridge the children needed to go to school.
“The panchayat said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not on. But we are going to build a bridge, you know, further up the stream. And that will be a beautiful bridge, it will be a pukka bridge, you can even take the cycle across.’ Then one little kid stood up and she said, ‘I know why you want the bridge there. You want the bridge there because there’s an arak shop on the other side. And when you drink you can’t get home, because you can’t cross the river. But we want a bridge here because we can cross and go to school in ten minutes.’”
The local government had no choice but to approve the bridge.
In another recent success, the Union pushed the government to set up a commission of inquiry into child marriages, to make Karnataka child-marriage-free.
Nandana Reddy says Bhima Sangha helps the children keep their dreams alive.
“What Bhima Sangha wants to achieve is the choice. That I need or need not work and if I do have to work, I can work in an environment that is protected, that gives me growth and development; that teaches me a skill; that improves my knowledge of the world and understanding of the world and my capacity to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
Back at the market, Mahesh is still working along with his best friend Ventakesh, who is also 11 years old.
They’re carrying sacks full of tomatoes, weighing 18 kilos. They have to haul the sacks back and forth dozens of times.
At the end of the day, they’ll be paid less than 2 US dollars each for their work.
But with better understanding of their rights and the future still ahead, Venkatesh holds onto his dreams to help his community.
“Today I’m going to school. The Bhima Sangha is helping me with books. They help me with any problems I face. I feel very happy when I meet other children at the Bhima Sangha meetings. I hope in the future as well I get all the help and assistance I need from them.”