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Tales of torture behind threads of gold

Mumbai, Dec. 21: Eight-year-old Ajay Kumar writhed in pain. A hammer blow had smashed his hand. His crime: he had dozed off while working. It was 3 am and he had been working since last morning.

Like his 12 co-workers, Ajay’s cries remained locked up inside the hot, squalid zari factory in Govandi where they worked 20 hours a day, without sleep, often without food.

No one heard their screams until one of them, Brijnath, escaped on Thursday. What unfolded was a harrowing tale of torture, exploitation and abuse — 13 boys, all between seven and 12, scarred for life.

The world was still a place of hope when they were brought to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar four months ago by some “social workers”. They were promised education and food, even “a movie once a week”, and it seemed like a dream.

The escape from grinding poverty soon turned into a nightmare. When workers of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, who freed the children, pushed their way into the factory of Sadiq Mohammad Zariwala, they found Ajay moaning in agony, his hand in a plaster.

Some of the boys had their hair plucked out. Others had broken bones. The more unfortunate among them had been branded with hot iron rods.

“Look at this,” said 10-year-old Sikandar, showing burn marks on his hands and back. “The moment we took a break we would be hit with hammers or iron rods. There was no respite, only hunger and pain. We had to work almost 20 hours a day.” But torture had toughened him. “Hamare to saar ke bal bhi nahi hai,” he laughed. “They plucked out my hair.”

They had also ripped out his innocence. It was not what “Ustadji” had promised when they were brought to Mumbai. “Our parents are very poor and they sent us here hoping we could help them out,” said Brijnath. “We were so happy to leave Bihar. The poverty there was too much. But Mumbai has been terrible.”

In this sordid tale of abuse and exploitation, the role of police has increasingly come into question.

“We repeatedly asked the police to do something about it but they said it was outside their purview,” said Dhananjay Kolkar of the BMS. “They asked us instead to take the matter to the labour commissioner.”

As the cops hesitated, Sadiq Mohammad escaped. He is now absconding.

A senior police officer at Govandi said the police had done the right thing. “This is a matter that has to be settled by the labour commissioner,” he said.

Shagir, a zari factory owner who helped the boys escape by asking the BMS to take action, said he has been getting death threats from anonymous callers. People who live in the Govandi slums say there are over 500 such zari units which employ child labourers. “Everyone is involved,” said one. “The cops have been bribed into silence.”

Deputy mayor Babubhai Bhawanji today visited the site and promised to take “appropriate action”. He also sent the boys, who are being treated at the K.E.M. Hospital, to the Shivaji Nagar police station to lodge a complaint. Bhawanji said they will be sent back to their parents.

But more than that, the boys want to know if their tormentor would be punished. “Usko to saza milna chahiye,” said Sikandar, his face a grimace of fear and hatred. Then, with the innocence of a child, he added: “Bhagwan to use nahi chhodega (God will not let him go scot-free).”

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