A repeat of an old story
He was not even 12 years old. There was the innocence of the baby in his eyes that were at once distant and vacant. He had brought the provisions from the local grocery stores. He was in shorts with a tight and torn T shirt that he had outgrown. It was very hot and the sun was blazing mercilessly. As I gave him the money, I asked him to wait. I gave him a glass of cool buttermilk to drink even as I asked him his name. Santosh was surprised and hesitant as he was not accustomed to people talking kindly to him. He became free from the next trips he came to deliver groceries and I could see the trace of smile and recognition in his face.
I learned that he was one among the seven boys who had come to Chennai from a Southern village. They stay in one room that is actually a shed covered by asbestos sheets with no fan on the first floor of the shop owner’s house. They were drawn from owner’s village or nearby ones from poor families. Some remittance is made monthly to the parents. They pass off as relatives of the owner but they are really child workers.
I asked one day Santosh to tell me what his daily routine was.
“We get up at four am start filling the various items of groceries in 250gms, 500 gms and one kilo packets up to 6am.We then have our bath and gruel made of broken rice before we go to the shop that is opened at 7am.We work up to 12 noon delivering goods at various homes in cycle or working in the shop. We then have our lunch of sambar rice or lemon rice or tomato rice sent from owner’s home and rest up to 1pm.There are not many people coming to shop then.”
“Is the food adequate? Are there any vegetables along with rice? I ask
“They give enough rice. Vegetables are put in sambhar.Once a week they send briyani.We cannot complain. We will get beaten if we are late in getting up or complain that we are not well. If we are very sick, we are taken to local government ESI hospital” he replied
How long do you work? Do you get weekly holiday?” I ask
“I am here for the last one year. Sunday afternoons we do not work. The shop closes daily at 10pm but we remain there till 1030 pm cleaning the premises before we return home for dinner at 11pm”he said
“You would hardly be sleeping even for four hours. Is there TV in your room though you do not have time watch it?”
“No TV. Once a month the owner sends us to see cinema’
“How much your parents get each month?” I asked
“I do not know. May be Rs500 after adjusting for food and lodging” said the boy.
How cruel I thought to extract unconscionably heavy work for almost 18 hours a day in conditions that cannot be termed human. I was disgusted with our legal system and the grossly inadequate enforcement machinery in tackling child labour especially when the parents of the victims are wiling accomplices to the cruelty. But the acute poverty in villages blunts the finer sentiments.
“What class you have studied? What is your aim in life?” I asked
Pat came the reply.”Class four. In ten years I will set up a similar shop elsewhere and bring boys like my owner from my village to help me become a successful and rich businessman.”
“Where will you get the money for starting the new business” I asked
“My owner would advance some money for setting up the shop when we become 25 years. We would repay him over a period of time. Many boys who worked earlier have set up their own shops and are thriving well” he said
It was downright child labour alright but I could not fail to discern a kindly heart behind at the way the owner makes prototypes of successful businessmen like himself. He probably makes them undergo the same hardships that he went through when he was young. The cycle would go on. I was in a quandary whether to condemn or praise him.