Lucknow, Aug. 28: A customer, apparently drunk and hollering for his table to be cleaned, shot a Dalit boy dead in an Uttar Pradesh dhaba late on Monday after the 11-year-old busy working at the crowded eatery kept the man waiting.
Police said the suspect, said to be a big farmer’s private security guard, sped away in his car soon after the incident on National Highway 58 in Shamli, a new district that adjoins Muzaffarnagar. He has not yet been arrested.
As the body of Kishore Niraj was brought to Hassepur, his village in neighbouring Bijnor district, this afternoon after a post-mortem, his mother Geeta fainted.
The boy’s father, Roopchand, who works in a spoon-making factory, told the police his son used to earn Rs 600 a month and got free food and accommodation at the dhaba.
The police have questioned the dhaba owner, Gokul Soni, and sources said a report against him for employing children had been sent to the state’s labour department. Child labour laws prohibit employing children under 14.
Gokul claimed Niraj had been employed on the request of his father.
Activists said the murder had again brought under glare the practice of employing children at highway restaurants and dhabas. At least one activist said these dhabas in Uttar Pradesh employed hundreds of children despite “repeated pleas” not to hire kids.
Shamli circle officer Prakash Kumar said the accused, Jagpal Pandit, 34, was probably drunk when he reached the dhaba on the highway that connects Delhi to Dehradun around 11 on the night of August 26.
Kumar said the accused, who sat at a table, started complaining that it had not been cleaned properly. But Niraj didn’t pay him much attention. “According to eyewitnesses, the accused called Niraj to clean the table but the boy didn’t respond. The accused waited for 15 minutes and then shouted at Niraj. When the boy came near Pandit, he whipped out his revolver and fired three shots into him,” the officer told The Telegraph.
The boy died on the spot even as the sound of gunshots triggered a stampede out of the dhaba. Pandit, who had come in a car, soon left the dhaba, which falls under Adarsh Mandi police station. Subhas Chandra, an officer at the police station, said a murder case had been registered against Pandit.
Circle officer Kumar said a hunt was on to nab the accused. “It is a murder that has unnerved us,” he added.
At least 15 teenagers from the village, where most of the residents are Dalits, work at various dhabas to supplement the family income.
Sources said some 125 big and small roadside dhabas and restaurants do brisk business on National Highway 58 that passes through districts like Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. An estimated 1,100 child workers have been employed by these dhabas, says Arshad Mehdi of Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
Last year, Mehdi said, the organisation had rescued over 100 children from these dhabas. The dhaba owners, he added, “refused to listen to our repeated pleas not to employ children”.
In a report last year, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights said that while children have been traditionally employed in the carpet industry in several districts, the number of child workers in restaurants and dhabas too has grown over the years.