"Do any of you go to work?" we ask the children.
The question makes the smiles vanish from their faces in an instant. Murmurs of "no" and immediate head-shaking goes around the dingy classroom in Kondamudusupallam Ambedkar Nagar village, in rural Andhra Pradesh. There is a visibly nervous shifting among the 12 boys and girls sitting in front of us. Until this point, all our questions received matter-of-fact answers -- definite yeses or nos. The children are evidently reluctant to answer this particular question. There's a quick exchange of glances among them, and, as if on cue, they all hang their heads in silence. But 13-year-old Meghna looks at us, and giggles.
"Meghna, I know you know something," my colleague Sarojitha smilingly probes further, latching on to the giggle. The girl points her finger towards the girl next to her, and chuckles, "She does!" Sarojitha turns and gives me an I-told-you-so look. She walks up to Meghna, and settles herself between Meghna and her friend on the floor. The afternoon sun is relentless, and we are all drenched in sweat.
"What is your name?"
"Chenchulakshmi," the girls shyly replies.
"How old are you?" Sarojitha asks
"Fifteen," comes the reply.
"Where do you work?"
"At the chilli drying yard."
"Do you go to school, Chenchulakshmi?"
Every single child in the group was working in chilli drying yards, after school hours. They also work on weekends and every holiday...
I felt it was ironic that the children were sitting in a dilapidated classroom. Chenchulakshmi had dropped out of school when she was in class 6, to add to the family income -- the drought had forced her family, among many others, to look for more earning hands. Most families in the village depend on agriculture for income, and failure of crops due to consecutive droughts have pushed them over the brink.
A little more cajoling from Sarojitha, and Chenchulakshmi opens up. "I used to go to school, and work after school hours. But the money was just not enough. So I stopped going to school altogether." As the conversation went further, a grim picture slowly began to emerge. Every single child in the group was working in chilli drying yards, after school hours. They also work on weekends and every holiday, including the two months of summer vacations.
Spending hours in the fields under the scorching sun, the children have no proper protection from the heat and are at risk of severe dehydration.
An average "working" holiday for them starts at 5am and stretches till noon, with a second shift from 1-5pm. What do the child labourers do? During the forenoon session, they pluck the ripe chilli from the plants (harvesting). Post lunch, they dry the chillies in the sun, and clean them i.e. remove the stems from the pods. On days they go to school, the children put in 4-6 hours after returning.
The work is not easy -- not even by adult standards. Spending hours in the fields under the scorching sun, the children have no proper protection from the heat and are at risk of severe dehydration. The heat causes severe headache and, often, fever. Staying in the same crouched posture for long hours during the cleaning of chillies, most children experience acute leg and back pain. Close contact with the chillies for extended hours causes a prolonged burning sensation in the palms of their hands.
Close contact with the chillies for extended hours causes a prolonged burning sensation in the palms of their hands.
How do they deal with it? Girls cover their heads with cloth or shawls while out in the sun. And when they walk home from the chilli yards, they buy ice cubes from local shops. "A two-inch ice cube costs one rupee. We buy ice cubes and hold them tight till they melt. We also rub them on our hands and face," Chenchulakshmi reveals. However, the burning sensation does not go away. According to Chenchulakshmi, her hands burn even as she goes to bed.
"How much do you get paid for your work?" asks Sarojitha. The children, their ages ranging from 11 to 15, are very sure of their wages. They get paid ₹12 for each kilogram of chilli cleaned, and they clean 5kg a day, on an average. Plucking ripe chillies in the field fetches them ₹150 a day - the target is to pluck enough to fill two 25kg bags. Apart from chilli yards, some of the children work in other farms too. Some of them fill harvested paddy into bags, earning ₹25 for each 76-kg bag.
As another World Day against Child Labour is observed on 12 June globally, India will still have millions of children working overtime, in its forgotten pockets.
The drought has only worsened things -- the children spend hours to fetch water. "We draw water from the well half a kilometre away, collecting at least 10 pots every day. We girls have it tough -- the boys are lucky, they have bicycles," complains Meghna. As my colleague digs deeper, we realize that all of 13 of the children work after school hours. And that they miss playing, and do not have time to study. And that in all likelihood, as another World Day against Child Labour is observed on 12 June globally, India will still have millions of children working overtime, in its forgotten pockets.
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