Deprived of nutrition, education and a safe environment, the number of child labourers in India is 10.1 million of which over 252,000 are in Rajasthan alone. A large number of these children work in the brick kilns under harsh conditions for a meagre wage. Their migrant parents, who are under heavy debt, are often forced to push them into child labour. A ground report from Bhilwara.
The chances of these child labourers in Rajasthan exiting the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation seem to be slim.
Distinguished from his adult workmates by his sheer stature, eight-year-old Chetan mechanically dumped mud from a small cart in a brick kiln. On the freezing cold January morning, the only piece of woollen clothing on his body was a grey pullover, along with a dusty pair of blue jeans and a pink cotton scarf covering his head.
Despite near freezing temperatures, Chetan’s forehead glistening with sweat, a testimony of the hard work the young boy had to put in to support his migrant family. The eight-year-old said he had never been to a school and daily worked 10-12 hours at the brick kiln in Dhannaji Ka Khera village in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district.
Chetan is not the only boy who has to resort to hard work far and above his capacity to ensure his family’s survival. According to a 2021 study conducted by Save The Children, a Gurugram-based non-profit, child labourers in the brick kilns in Rajasthan work for more than 10 hours a day and their contribution to their family’s earning is almost a quarter.
The study – Status of Child Labour and Legal Entitlements of Workers in Major Sectors in Rajasthan – conducted between January and April 2021, found that almost 41 per cent of the child labourers in brick kilns were tasked with kneading the mud, 48 per cent made bricks, and 47 per cent were involved in drying the mud bricks.
The report informed that an average household involved in the daily wage labour at the brick kilns earned Rs 11,628 in a month out of which Rs 2,707 was earned by child labourers like Chetan.
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According to data from the 2011 census, the number of child labourers in India is 10.1 million of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. Out of these, around 252,000 child labourers are in Rajasthan itself.
Also, as per the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a total of 152 million children – 64 million girls and 88 million boys – are estimated to be in child labour globally, accounting for almost one in 10 of all children worldwide. The pandemic has worsened the situation of child labour in India and globally.
“There are five bhatti (brick kilns) in this village and as many as thirty to thirty five families employed here are migrants from Bihar while almost eight families hail from Uttar Pradesh,” Dhirendra, an adult migrant worker who stood beside Chetan at the brick kiln in Dhannaji Ka Khera village, told Gaon Connection. “Entire families are employed in this work by the maalik (kiln owner). It is the norm for the young boys to contribute to the day’s labour here,” he said.
“Almost every family here has three children on an average. The daily task of supplying mud from the heap to us for making bricks is allotted to boys like Chetan. All children except those in infancy spend their day in the bhatti and work in some capacity or the other,” the young man added casually.
Brick kiln owners prefer allotting the task of bringing mud from the heap to the brick-making labourers to children since it doesn’t require much skill but is far more labour intensive than the work done by the adults.
Dhirendra also informed Gaon Connection that the working hours are not fixed at the brick kiln since the payments are based on the number of bricks made in a day.
“As a result, all workers including children try to make as many bricks as possible and spend almost twelve to fourteen hours working here. The money that children like Chetan earn is close to Rs 100 to Rs 120 a day. The amount is added to the daily wage of their parents,” he said.
In an answer submitted in the state assembly by the Department of Labour in March, 2o21, it was informed that the children rescued from the brick kilns by the Rajasthan Police are mostly found to be from the backward and economically deprived castes and their ages ranged from 10-17. From 2018 to 2020, a total of 5,868 children were rescued in the state.
As a result of working beyond their capacity, the mental and physical health of the child labourers gets adversely affected. Ashok Gupta, a child health specialist based in the state capital Jaipur, told Gaon Connection that he has witnessed abysmally poor nutrition levels amongst the child labourers.
“Hard work coupled with poor quality of food deals a double blow on the physical health of these children. Children in their growing age need nutrition-intensive diets but what they get to eat at the brick kilns is far from acceptable,” Gupta said.
The child health specialist also underlined that mental health issues of these child labourers are often ignored and the topic needs way more attention than it gets.
“Cut off from the outside world, the psyche of these children develops in isolation. These children are excessively negative in their outlook towards life and have no aspirations to talk about,” the doctor added.
Meanwhile, Virendra Singh, Jaipur-based pulmonologist told Gaon Connection that constant exposure to dust in the kiln raises their risk of contracting infections of the respiratory tract as well as the lungs.
“These kids fall sick repeatedly. Due to frequent disease burden, their physical growth is retarded. These kids look younger than their age,” Singh told Gaon Connection. “Also, these brick kilns are mostly situated in the rural areas where health facilities are hard to access. This adds to their poor health,”
The chances of these child labourers in Rajasthan exiting the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation seem to be slim as they are unable to access the state’s welfare schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Shaitan Regar, the general secretary of the Eent Bhatta Mazdoor Union in Bhilwara told Gaon Connection that nutritious food offered by the government through its anganwadis and mid-day meals at schools remains out of reach for these children as they are not allowed to quit working and get enrolled in a government school.
“The exploitative kiln owners pressurise the families to not let the children go to schools. A child’s labour comes cheap. An adult doing the same work will have to be paid around Rs 300-Rs 350 but these innocent child labourers ensure that the labour cost remains low for the owners,” Regar told Gaon Connection. In such conditions, the parents are often threatened against sending their children to schools to access nutrition and education, he added.
“In Bhilwara itself, there are at least 4,000 child labourers working at the brick kilns. At least one third of them cannot read or write at all. The atmosphere they grow up in is highly oppressive,” he added.
Additionally, Sudhir Katiyar, a functionary of the Udaipur-based NGO named Prayas Centre for Labour Research Action told Gaon Connection that the migrant families who are brought from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to work in the kilns do not live here permanently.
“They are brought here to work for seven to eight months. As a result, the children are neither able to attend school in their villages nor do they get enrolled in schools here,” Katiyar said.
When Gaon Connection approached the joint director of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) in Rajasthan, he informed that it is difficult to maintain regular contact with the child labourers in the brick kilns.
“Due to their inability to come to the schools, they are sadly left out of all government efforts to provide nutrition to the children,” Bhag Chand Badhal admitted. “Unless these kids come to the local anganwadi centre, we cannot provide them the much needed nutritious food. We have tried to provide food to these children at the kilns but it has been observed that the parents themselves consume it,” the director ICDS added.
Most of the families who work at the brick kiln work as bonded labourers who owe money to the local moneylenders in their villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
One such family is that of Shiv Balak who has migrated to Bhilwara from Mau with his 39-year-old wife Ratiya and their five children. His five children range from six-months to eight years of age.
Shiv Balak had availed a loan of Rs 35,000 from the moneylender in his Amjhar village in the Mau district of Uttar Pradesh but couldn’t pay it back upon which he was asked by his creditor to migrate to Rajasthan and work in the brick kilns to repay his debt.
This system of bonded labour is known as peshagi in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“My seven-year-old son is also required to work at the bhatti. The money that I get paid for the labour of my child is the deducted amount. It gets deducted for peshgi and sood (interest),” Shiv Balak told Gaon Connection.
Shaitan Regar, the worker union’s leader, told Gaon Connection that not only the children but their parents are also malnourished at the brick kilns.
“The women labourers barely weigh 40 t0 42 kilogrammes,” he said.
Ratiya, Shiv Balak’s wife told Gaon Connection that poor diet and exhaustive labour results in her infant child living in hunger. “I go to work as soon as I wake up and get to eat aloo and bhaat (potato and rice). My infant who depends on breast milk doesn’t get any milk to drink. I cannot provide any fruits to him as well. I fear for my child’s life,” she added.
Note: Names of minors have been changed to preserve anonymity.