Patna, Nov. 6: Placard in hand, Shital Kumar crossed the road and strode towards the house of Ramchandra Purve. Busy preparing to leave home at 9 am, the Bihar school education minister thought the 12-year-old was another boy out on a fund-raising mission for one of the innumerable causes children champion.
But Purve was taken aback when 79 other children materialised out of nowhere, joined hands with Shital and squatted in front of his house. Then the chorus began. “Bal majdoori bandh karo (Stop child labour). Shiksha ka prabandh karo (Give us education),” the tender voices chanted.
The army of Shital, once a domestic help in a “big bungalow”, has been marching down the streets in the area, dotted with VVIP houses, reminding the occupants of a vow taken by Laloo Prasad Yadav last year to eradicate child labour in power houses. Laloo Prasad had pledged to do so on December 17, 2002, on an appropriate occasion — a children’s rally.
Enquiries by Purve, known as a sensitive minister, revealed that the sons of Ramshankar Paswan and Suresh Nat — two backward-caste labourers of the locality — have been working in his house. One is 10, the other 12.
The senior minister in the Rabri Devi government, who also holds the parliamentary affairs portfolio, called the protesters inside and explained that the children have been sent to school and are well taken care of. “They don’t just work. They also study and play here,” he told them.
Purve, however, told the members of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan that he would rather join their movement. “I will request the chief minister to direct all ministers not to engage children for work in their houses,” he assured them.
But not all ministers are as warm in their response to the movement launched in the part of Patna where most VVIPs’ houses are located. “Several shooed us away as if we had rabies,” said 10-year-old Sarupa Kumari.
To counter non-cooperation from such ministers, the children have pasted posters on their houses and have, on occasion, refused to disperse till they were allowed to find the victims. The children said the drive, launched yesterday, will continue till November 21.
That day, they plan to stage a demonstration in front of the chief minister’s residence as, according to reports, a couple of child labourers live in the servants’ quarters of her bungalow. “There are about 467 child labourers working in the VVIP bungalows in ward no 5 of Patna city. They work as domestic aides in the houses of ministers, judges and senior IPS officers — instead of going to school. If these VVIPs flout the law, how can you blame ordinary individuals for encouraging child labour'” asks Ajay Kumar Singh, the president of Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s Bihar unit.
Invisible Slave, a report on the condition of child labourers in Patna prepared by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, had stated that at least 1,500 children who should have been in school are working in the houses of Bihar’s politicians. Most of them are not even paid. In Patna, 30 per cent of the doctors also engage them. In 23 per cent of the Bihar homes where child labour is employed, the victims are asked to sleep in the veranda.
A ray of hope comes in the kindness shown by some ministers. When the army of 80 children knocked on the door of the minister for irrigation, forests and environment, Jagdanand Singh invited them to search his house. The children were happy when they did not find any child labourer. Their delight doubled when he distributed chocolates.