Dickensian misery

by December 13, 2019 0 comments

The recent fire at Anaj Mandi drew attention to the large swathes of Delhi’s underbelly populated by migrant labourers and trafficked children below the age of 18

The death of children — 10 according to a fact-finding team of a Delhi-based NGO — in  Sunday’s massive fire at Anaj Mandi in the Capital’s central district has brought the spotlight back on the appalling conditions that they, especially those who are trafficked and brought over to the megacity, are forced to work in. Besides being a near-reflection of the squalid and grubby environs of 19th century London — as depicted in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist — large swathes of Delhi’s underbelly, especially on the city’s fringes, are populated by an invisible underclass, most of which has migrant labourers and trafficked children below the age of 18.

Coupled with this grim reality, which comes to the fore only in the aftermath of the tragic loss of human lives, especially of the poor and the marginalised, is the apathetic attitude of the Government and its many agencies and departments. More often than not, these agencies fail to perform their duty — collaborate and team-up with each other and child rights organisations to effectively and decisively stem the tide of an unending flow of trafficked children or, in the least, improve the conditions in which they are forced to work for a pittance. Despite being mandated to end the evil of child labour, the police, the labour department and the city administration often fail to do enough, making it appear to be a lost battle, especially in the face of a crude but efficient network of traffickers and employers.

The near-consistent regularity with which Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the 2014 Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s flagship NGO, conducts most raid-and-rescue missions, along with Government agencies and the police, to free trafficked children from hazardous and life-degrading working conditions across thousands of basic and rudimentary factories reflect the enormity of the problem. Over the last two years alone, BBA’s efforts, jointly with the authorities, helped rescue 1,072 children below the age of 18.

While this number may appear seemingly small, some of BBA’s seasoned field staff say it is “a little misleading” because “street-smart” traffickers often arm the children with identity documents that state their age to be above 14 years. Suffice it to say that well over 100,000 children are estimated to be working in illegal factories.

Second, the frequency of raid-and-rescue operations has also gone up but that is not a reflection of the alacrity of the administration which acts only when push comes to shove.

The administration’s apathy or inability apart, what is, however, telling is that “three-fourth of the total bonded labourers rescued by the BBA were children under the age of 14.” In many cases, the children from poor socio-economic backgrounds are forced to work in conditions not very different from servitude.

Statistics culled from BBA field studies and reports present a gloomy picture. According to a district-wise percentage distribution of children rescued from various establishments since 2005, North East Delhi stands at the top with 18 per cent, followed by Central Delhi at 16 per cent and North Delhi at 15 per cent. The figures for the relatively affluent parts, such as New Delhi, South Delhi and South West Delhi, are two per cent, four per cent and four per cent, respectively. Beyond the cold numbers is a sordid tale of exploitation, poverty, lack of access to jobs in socio-economically backward States such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and the seemingly flourishing network of child traffickers and their nexus with potential employers in Delhi. Nepal, too, is an “origin” country for child labourers. More revealing is the fact that since 2011, the BBA alone has rescued 8,918 child labourers from illegal and unauthorised manufacturing/commercial units that operate on Delhi’s fringes. Over 50,000 illegal industrial units across hundreds of residential areas function with impunity and with full knowledge of the authorities.

While Delhi is the most prime destination where child labourers are trafficked to, the other dimension of this organised racket constitutes the source States. There is little or no law enforcement vigilance that could potentially hit and cripple the networks that generate an unending supply of cheap child labour. While it cannot be overemphasised that national and State plans must be formulated to curb child trafficking and seal illegal manufacturing units, a bigger challenge is regulation and vigilance over the latter that operate in and outside Delhi with impunity.

The BBA’s experience has been that while very few cases go up for prosecution once these units are sealed (739 have been sealed), the establishments are back in business in no time, which is more a reflection of an ever-increasing demand for cheap labour (read child labour) that unauthorised industrial units cater to. This is in blatant violation of a 2014 Delhi High Court judgment in Save the Childhood Foundation vs Union of India case, which directed the Delhi administration to seal all factories that employ child labour.

A 2018 report says that when the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC) directed the authorities at Delhi’s three municipal corporations to crack down on illegal industrial units, it was met with inaction. But the prevalence of child labour is not only limited to illegal industrial units. According to BBA data, child labour is most prevalent in the notified industrial areas in and around the Capital.

Indeed, 94 per cent of children rescued over the last eight years were found to be working in small industries in residential areas. A mere six per cent of children were rescued from industries in the notified areas. This should be a wake-up call for the authorities who, instead of coordinating their acts to crack down on manufacturing units, often turn a blind eye to the twin problem of thousands of hovels that churn out bags, plastic toys, footwear, bangles, packaging material, pocket purses, diaries, T-shirt printing and automobile parts and garages and the perennial supply of child labour to them.

It is in the backdrop of this wretchedness that the authorities could still salvage the situation by, first, implementing the 2009 Delhi Action Plan on eliminating child labour. Second, the administration must, as a matter of urgency, conduct a comprehensive door-to-door survey in residential areas, especially on the city’s periphery, for identification of illegal commercial and industrial units. Third, the authorities must resort to sealing such establishments immediately and take immediate stringent action against errant officials, including the police and labour department personnel and others concerned.

No less important is the need for the police to file chargesheets in cases involving child labour (since 2011, no chargesheet has been filed in as many as 509 cases), within 45 days of all raid-and-rescue operations and complete the trial process within a time-bound period of one year. On its part, the labour department must take proactive steps to get the back wages of rescued child labourers within 45 days of raid-and-rescue missions and grant adequate monetary compensation for the violation of their human rights.

There is both qualitative and quantitative evidence to suggest that the problem of illegal industries operating out of Delhi’s residential areas without mandatory approvals and clearances has a “fairly large dimension.” It would, therefore, not be an exaggeration to claim that a deep nexus keeps the illegal units alive even as people, including children, perish or are adversely impacted economically. The Anaj Mandi fire brought to the fore not just inherent shortcomings in the administrative system but also a political will to act — the reason being electoral.

The voters’ constituencies of some political parties live and feed off the unauthorised industrial units across the city’s many residential areas. It is, therefore, imperative that the city’s political leadership must look beyond short-term electoral gains and focus on long-term measures to mitigate the many problems and threats — social, economic and civic — those illegal industrial units pose, especially to our children.

(Writer: Sampurna Behura; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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