Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The cruel cycle

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.


  1. Is there a stop to this cycle? Can there be some action taken for the welfare of these struggling children. I am in a dilemma after reading the last two paragraphs to comment anything further.

  2. hmmmm well i know the dilema of child labour but in this case the little one is going to work for himslef

    they do say give some food you may feed one for a meal , but teach someone how to earn they will be able ot feed for life ..


  3. I would praise him - the owner!

  4. am not sure if the act can be called charitable. The money he might advance will be just a speck in the spectrum, and may not even equal the children's rightful due, considering the years of unjust labour he'd have extracted by then. And the kids turning into successful business men is no solace for there is no guarantee of that in the absence of correct education and more importantly, is no substitute for the loss of childhood.

  5. This practice of employing child labour is widely practiced here too. The parents gets a pittance. In some cases they work to square off a loan taken by parents. people like Santosh have not got to see a better world and hence think they would thrive if they emulate their boss.

    A thought provoking post but given the real scenario it is unlikely that we could end the cycle but should make a difference where we can.

  6. I dont think its a child labour, its rather giving them a chance to lead a good life.
    Its only bad, if children arent paid for their work, or asked to do dangerous work due to their ignorance..otherwise working for wages cant be denied in a poor country.

  7. Once my daughter participated in a debate on child labour and while helping her I came across an incident where so many times the children are the only earner in a poor family, sometimes without father, sick mother and all and there if we deny them the chance to work and earn..because helping them with food is not a solution, we need to have something permanent,i think THAT would be cruel..

    If all good hearted people instead of denying them enployment, rather keep them it would be better, because then children would be in safe loving hands, and then may be we can help them study privately, help them to maintain their health and give them good food...I would say employ them and if you feel sad for them give them more salary than they deserve.

  8. i too am in a dilemma... whether to praise the owner for inspiring the kids to become like him and making them work towards it OR curse him for subjecting these little ones to such hardships at the cost of their childhood.

  9. They get paid for the work they do KP. Even if they are left in their home towns, they won't attend schools properly. The intellectual ones are compelled and sent to school, only those who fare poor in studies are sent to such shops. The owner is doing a remarkable service at the later stage. Do you know what is the per day earning in an average grocery shop? Even if those guys would have studied well, they would have probably ended up in jobs with paltry pay. Belonging to a Southern village where every house boasts of a son in chennai owning a grocery shop and car,i know the ground reality. Life is not always abed of roses. There is absolutely no livelihood for these boys in the villages- that are laden with desert like sand and withering palm trees...

  10. It is a catch 22 situation for these poor kids.

  11. I'm not impressed by the way of the boss. One do not have to walk though slush to know to avoid slush.

    And not always do broken backs make up a successful life.

  12. Don't agree to this type of treatment even if he going to help them in FUTURE. Today morning, I read a news abt a boy who had his hands dipped in boiled oil as he dozed off during his duty..This came to light when the boy hailing frm Virudhunagar came home to attend his father's funeral.
    Now case is registered. But will it remove the scalds and burns from the 14 year olds mind? We have only laws for name sake . Each& every shop and hotels here we see children slogging from morning till late evening.But poverty drives them to take up this. At least they get some food...Poor things.

  13. I feel bad when young children deliver groceries and like you, offer them some refreshments. Children need to get an education. Period. But the poverty is so much that they are seen as two hands to work instead of children with brains and ambition to study. One of my friends echoes the sentiments of Cloudnine and says that the shopkeepers are actually doing a service by employing these boys. I am not so sure. As a nation we seem to have become blind to the plight of the poor.

  14. Really apalling. Makes us realize how much we take for granted.

  15. I think the boys are being trained well and taken good care of and being prepared to face realities of life. The trader is kind and acting as a parent/guardian/good samaritan !

  16. We speak of RTE! Art. 24 speaks volumes on child labour... yet, i feel that, sometimes- our govt. is like the French queen who asked to people to eat cake if they didn't have bread!
    When I see a small child working in front of you- what would I do? I cannot think of an answer!

  17. I too do not agree with this kind of treatment. He is basically selfish, and training the boys to think just like him, and in future behave like him. One should have no 2 thoughts about this matter, such vicious cycle cannot be supported at any cost. People think just because these children anyway come from a backward village, and that they are already a lost case, are just hiding behind dark glasses. Not everybody needs to be intelligent / educated to come up in life and do something good. We as people should have the Pay Forward mentality.

  18. I had an incident where the maid sent her daughter to do her job of washing, sweeping and moping. I let her was the utensils but had my daughter who is of the same age sweep. The grumble i got from my daughter was terrible but teh maids child was cheerfully telling her to leave it and she will do the job. Needless to say the maid got a earful from me the next day. never again did she send her to work at my place but did she send her elsewhere i cannot guarantee.

  19. Multiple opinions but it happens everywhere and I can say it is a real story.

  20. This cycle just goes on and on, and the people in question would not even know that it is wrong, since they were subjected to the same conditions and no one had opposed that. Sad.