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OPERATION ‘SMILE’: Over 200 Child Labourers Rescued in Hyderabad

Hyderabad Jan 25: ‘Over 200 child labourers rescued’ was the newline in The Hindu front page on 25th January, Sunday. ‘Kids were monitored, thrashed for ‘poor performance’ was the other title of the news item on page 6. The Deccan Chronicle had the screaming headlines, “220 kids in bonded labour freed in city.”The operation based on a tip off was carried out by over 400 police personnel under the leadership of Dy. Commissioner of Police, Mr. V. Satyanarayana.

220 children, including 3 girls were rescued from different houses, mostly an apartment building at Talabkatta, in the Bhavaninagar area of Hyderabad. It is said a cordon and search operation as part of anti-terrorism checks led to his huge rescue operation. All these children are now at Don Bosco Navajeevan, Hyderabad.Though the paper report says that most of the children were below 12 years, a number of them could be over 18 years. They hail mostly from Bihar. They were brought here by owners of bangle units hailing from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. The parents of the children have received advances to the tune of 10 to 20 thousand Rupees. Further, they are paid only two to five thousand rupees a month as wages and are made to work for long hours and not allowed to leave the place of work. The report said that children who should be holding books or playing games were working with chemicals and in hazardous conditions. It is said that the police have taken into custody as many as 20 brokers and employers under bonded labour and other provisions.

A police official described the high tech vigilance used by the owners with CCTV Cameras monitoring the work of these children. They also mentioned that those who did not perform were beaten. The children were not provided blankets or warm clothes.

What happened in Hyderabad is part of Operation SMILE, carried out by the CID department, is a month long programme initiated by the Home Ministry on 1st January. As they had not intimated to the other departments, the people of the Labour Department (NCLP) and the Child Welfare Department were surprised and did not know how to handle the huge number children suddenly brought to them.

Though the TV news bulletins flashed the news that the children would be accommodated in different children’s homes, at the end of the day, all the children except 3 girls were brought to Don Bosco Navajeevan, Ramanthapur. Interestingly, the media did not realise this and hence there was no secondary abuse of these children by them.

What happened after the Media hype of the Rescue?

Meeting the children we get a different story. They were brought to Navajeevan by government Road Transport buses in the evening. At first they were lined up in the basket ball court and faced the onslaught of a host of mosquitoes that had seemed to have come for new blood. Initially the children were very silent. After they had eaten some biscuits and later had supper, they began to smile and talk.

Today after breakfast and with the TV on, the decibels started going up. As no directions have been given by the CWC yet, the police are taking no chances. Of course they remind each other to be in mufti and to be gentle with the children. It was a delight to see a senior police constable dealing with the children with a smile and obligingly.

The Navajeevan children were their real friends and guardians at this hour of need. They rose up to the occasion. Very soon curiosity turned into concern. They cleaned up the place for them, constantly supplying drinking water, providing blankets, serving food, arranging entertainment and so on. They too had similar experiences and it was easy for them to empathise with these children.

In the friendly atmosphere, the children gradually started sharing their stories. The bigger boys are feeling their confinement. Many of them claimed to have had a comfortable life with the money they earned. Some expressed their sympathy for the arrested employers who they claim treated them well. They are aware of the prejudice against Biharis. Some children are related to the employers or brokers. In spite of them others acknowledged the horrendous conditions in which they lived.

We do not know how long the children will be here. As the day progressed, more and more children were brought in by the concerned police after informing the CWC. Looking at some of the smaller children who are crying for their parents, one wonders whether reaching targets has affected the so-called rescue. The officials, including the CWC members, have not turned up today, being Sunday! Volunteers from Divya Disha and Child line were here the whole day to gather information about each child. Tomorrow is Republic Day. The CWC will have the sitting here regardless of the holiday.  One wonders whether the officials will breathe a sigh of relief on 31st that Operation SMILE is over or whether the efforts to eradicate child labour will continue.

Dilemmas in the Efforts to Eradicate Child Labour

Dealing with Child Labour is not easy. The poor parents look for a way to supplement their meagre income with the contributions that their children can make. They themselves might have been child labourers and have received no education. They continue on a beaten track that assures them survival.

Employers need their work done. Child labour might make work cheaper. According to Veblen Thorstein, there are only two classes: the working class and the exploiting or the business class. Besides, there are works which the children can do better because of their nimble hands. When I was a student, I used to be called to help in the repair of the projector because my small hands and nimble fingers could reach where the bigger hands could not. So child labour is useful.

Nonetheless, the situation of child labour is serious and needs to be addressed. The Nobel Prize to Kailash Sathyarthi in 2014 is a call to all Indians to join hands to fight child labour. Any number of Operation SMILE can only serve to stir the hornet’s nest. There will be accusations and counter accusations. The officials will blame the parents and employers. They may also blame one another in the different departments.

From what transpired in front of us it was evident that there was neither planning nor coordination, and absolutely no focus on children. They have no plan on what to do with the children. To begin with, they brought the children with no plans or arrangements for the accommodation of children and their need for food, warm clothing, and toiletries. Many individuals from different departments gathered at the premises, and each talking on the mobile phones to their bosses who were dishing out orders at will, but not doing much to satisfy the immediate needs of the children.

A so-called counsellor from Child line was standing with a mask as if the children would contaminate him. So were at least five other volunteers who came to meet the children. At our insistence they had the courtesy to remove the masks. Without genuine interest in the children, and sincere faith in the possibility of change, these efforts are bound to be doomed.

The police came tired, though satisfied at the good work done. They understood the need to change into more friendly attire and obliged without any hesitation. A policeman came on the bike with the siren blaring. We had to stop him before more damage could be done. He thought he could help by putting some fear into the children.

The labour department officials were peeved that they were not involved. They had not done their work and were embarrassed that other departments had stolen the limelight! Interestingly, they were willing to talk more about responsibility than about power. They admitted that many of these children had been rescued from the same area and brought before the CWC earlier.

How to prevent child labour was the constant topic for discussion! Tomorrow the CWC is beginning their sittings to address the situation of each child. The problem is complicated. They themselves have no resources or personnel to carry out their fond desires to help the children. They say that they want to use this opportunity to bring about lasting change with regard to child labour, beginning with these children.