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Poverty forces kids to work illegally in job scheme

Tehatta, Dec. 25: Many minors in Nadia’s Tehatta are working under the central 100-day job scheme in violation of rules, using the job cards of their guardians.

The revelation comes days after Nadia topped the list of districts in implementing welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

The Tehatta panchayat said action would be taken against rural-body appointed project supervisors if they were found guilty of allowing children to work under the NREGA. Panchayats distribute and supervise work under the scheme.

The children, aged between eight and 14 years, are building roads, digging earth and carrying loads on their heads. The minimum age of getting work under the NREGA is 18 years. The kids said they had no option but to work to augment the income of their impoverished families. Some have left school.

In Keshabkhali-Duttapara, around 30 children are engaged in building a village road a stone’s throw from the office of the Tehatta sub-divisional officer.

A 12-year-old boy said: “Work begins at 6.30 in the morning and continues till 11.30am. Under the scheme, each worker has to dig 80 cubic feet of earth. We skip school on days we work as classes begin at 11am.”

The boy’s father, a rickshaw-puller, does not have an NREGA job card. The child uses the card of his uncle.

“My uncle works elsewhere. So I use his job card. I earn Rs 151 a day, which is useful in running my family,” the boy added.

A 13-year-old boy in the same locality said he had dropped out of school to work. “What my father earns by selling shoes by the roadside is not enough to run the family. I will not get a job card till I turn 18. So I use my father’s card.”

In Rudranagar village, a 12-year-old boy said he had “no alternative” but to work. “My father is a poor farm labourer. Any extra income is always welcome. So I have opted out of school and am working,” he said.

The two panchayat-appointed supervisors at the Keshabkhali-Duttapara site — Abhijit Mandal and Saddar Sheikh — said they knew that engaging children in manual labour was a violation of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. But they said they allowed the kids to work “because they come from poor families”.

“I do not want children to work, but their parents send them here. I have told them several times that they should do the job themselves instead of sending their children,” Abhijit Mandal said. “These people are poor and this extra income helps them.”

Panchanan Haldar, an elderly labourer, alleged that the supervisors never stopped the children from working. “The kids’ studies are getting hampered. Besides, the children should not be made to do such strenuous work,” he said.

A 14-year-old boy from Rudranagar said poverty had forced him to take up odd jobs.

“My father died when I was a year old. Since then, my mother has been working as a domestic help. She has no job card. I use the card of my grandmother,” he said.

The boy’s mother said: “I feel sad for my son. But what do I do? The money is essential to run the family.”

The Congress pradhan of the Tehatta panchayat, Chaina Mandal, said she was not aware of children working under the NREGA.

“I have issued standing instructions to supervisors not to allow children to work at NREGA sites. Engaging children as labourers is prohibited. The supervisors will be held responsible if the kids are working,” Chaina Mandal said. She said she would seek an explanation from the two supervisors. “They will be punished if found guilty.”

A district official said the maximum punishment for violators under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was one year in jail and a fine of Rs 20,000.

Tehatta SDO Arnab Chatterjee said: “If children are being employed, action will be taken against the supervisors concerned.”

“We will also try to convince the parents not to make their children do manual labour,” he added.