Saturday, November 16th, 2019
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Why do 50,000 children work in Surat’s textile industry?

Shirish Khare
Of the 262 primary schools in Surat, 2 are government schools. The other startling statistic is that there are 4 secondary schools in the city. 112.27 square km large, Surat has a population of 29 lakh of which 6 lakh can be considered ‘poor’. There is a huge gap between the primary schools and the children of this poor section of the populace. Of those children who get to primary school a whopping 10% never get to secondary school. So, where then do these children go? The answer is simple – they go to work.

Along with being one of the most significant trading centres in the country, Surat is also one of the most expensive. Since daily requirements of vegetables and grain come from outside of the city, they remain dear. A four member family needs a minimum of Rs 5,000 a month to survive. That’s why children have to pitch in to keep the house running.

As the train leaves Surat and heads towards Mumbai, it rapidly leaves behind the dense hutments at Ambedkarnagar. So its probable that no one notices the wall of Smeemale Hospital against which about 100 small accommodations scramble together. The stench from the trash strewn along the rail tracks pervades the air for a few kilometres around the area. Sanju Baghela lives here, the eldest of three brothers. Barely 14, he has been working in the textile godowns for the past 6 months. His 10 by 12 foot jhuggi is made of disparate materials – slats from a double bed, bamboo, mud, dry leaves and twigs, assorted stones…His parents sell vegetables on the road that runs under the railway bridge. On a good day they manage about Rs 100. Even if they earn this amount everyday, they scrape together only Rs 3000 which isn’t enough money to survive in Surat. Sanju is therefore their ray of hope – when he is capable, his earnings will bring in at least another Rs 1000 a month.

According to his employer, Sanju isn’t capable yet. So he doesn’t get any wages. This is his first job, so Sanju reaches early – at 7pm you can find him at the door of the sari godown. He travels 14kms. Part of this distance he covers by sharing a rickshaw with his friends. That means a minimum expenditure of Rs 10. He rarely returns before 10pm. In order to be able to wake up at 5am, he has to go to sleep almost as soon as he gets home. Before dawn breaks he has to cross the railtracks for his morning ablutions and to fill the water for the house. Most of the house work is done by his younger brother Mukesh, but at the age of 12 he too is preparing to enter the labour force. Dakshaben, their mother, tells me that she needs Rs 500-600 everyday to buy vegetables. Nowadays, because the bastis around have been demolished, business is not too good. They aren’t able to do other kinds of work because they’re illiterate. So rather than have their children sleep hungry, they put them to work as well.

Sanju’s three friends read books fluently. Sanju can only write his name. He knows his numbers but cannot add or subtract. He had tried going to school for a while. But for a child going in Class one, crossing the rail tracks and walking two kilometres in the heavy Sangam Tekri traffic proved daunting. Then he injured his left leg in an accident with a motorcycle. After that, he simply refuses to go to school. The crossing of the rail tracks is a problem for the children as well as the adults, who have to now drop them to school since it is unsafe for them to go alone. When the bulldozer demolished the houses here on 11th February, the truth came out – 1125 people live here, and not a single child goes to school.

The stories of Ajay Thakur, Mogiya, Parveen Ahire, Sanjay Ukhru and Raja Janardhan are even more baffling. Ajay’s father, drunk on Diwali night, passed away leaving behind his two sons and 3 daughters. 16 year old Ajay works carrying sacks from the multi-storeyed buildings in the textile market and load them on to the waiting trucks on the road. For each sack he gets Rs2; of late he has been able to do about 50 sacks a day. Mogiya’s father also died an alcoholic leaving behind 13 year old Mogiya and his 12 year old sister Aaku who now sort garbage to earn a living. 14 year old Kavita cleans the bathrooms of Smeemale hospital with her mother Aruna. All these children, given that they don’t get work on Sunday, collect in front of Anjuben’s television. Since this is the only television in the area, on Sunday, it resembles a mini cinema house.

The children here are not free to wander as they please, because the police often round them up and put them in the lock up under Sections 155 and 109. Their parents then need to pay Rs 50 to get them released. Ironically, several municipal contractors turn a blind eye to the law and use these same children as cheap labour. For instance, 12 year old Vinod and his friends paint the electricity poles in the area. In some sectors, if a child under 18 is found working, the industry is fined; so shouldn’t the municipality here also be fined? Children here endanger their lives every day, that too without any kind of protective gear. Even as we were on our tour, we heard that one electrician had died while doing such work.

On Monday, under the pretext of visiting Sanju, we went to the gate of the godown. Sanju not only works at this godown, but also at Aashika Garments, a shop in the area. The godown is inside the shopping complex. The gallery in the godown is very narrow and dark. And yet in this environment, 12-15 chiildren in the age range of 12 years work for hours, cutting saris, packing thread, carrying heavy bundles to and fro. Of the 12 children we met, 8 suffered from respiratory illnesses. This seems inevitable given the lack of ventilation, fans, windows. The heat is unbearable. And yet the children sit there working for hours at a stretch. Time has no meaning here –day moves seamlessly into night in these dim interiors. The only clue children have is that around 2pm they get a half hour lunch break.

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