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A word version of the report mentioned in this article can be downloaded/viewed here.
Breaking the backs of India's children
May 16 2005
By Shantha Sinha - The Asian Age India
On April 14 and 15 this year I represented the M.V. Foundation on a visit to Hospet, Sandur and Illakal talukas in Karnataka. I was in the company of a fact finding team comprising representatives of HAQ Centre for Child Rights, New Delhi, Campaign against Child Trafficking, Samata, mines, minerals & People, India, Campaign Against Child Labour, Karnataka and Oxfam Swaraj, Karnataka. After just one day in the area in the blazing hot sun, our skin was covered with the red dust of iron filings which emanates from the iron ore mines.
It is estimated that there are at least 200,000 boys and girls working relentlessly from morning to night in these iron ore quarries which cover an expanse of 180 kilometres of denuded land. What we witnessed in this sordid tragedy of child labour - a horrendous site of large scale violence and oppression - is simply unpardonable. Let us look at one village in this area. On a half-acre plot of land taken on lease by a contractor, there are eight households with 15 adults and 25 children. Five- to six-year old Gangamma, Ishwaramma and Shekamma spend between six to eight hours a day hammering away through a pile of iron stock so that they can build up their pile of iron ore "lumps." The pile at the end of the day and the number of iron basins they fill will determine how much their families will earn. They are not the only ones.
Little three-year-old Ramesh carries an iron basin filled with iron ore lumps on his head, this early induction into the world of mining and exploitation being part of his childhood. His load is not as heavy as the 15 kg that all the other children carry up and down while their backs and heads hurt, but as they tell themselves, "How can we complain?"
These are not ordinary jobs that these children do. Sitting hunched over hot ferrous ore, chipping away steadily at heavy metal with a hammer is not "child's play." At its safest, it is painful for the shoulders and the back, the wrist joints and the arms while the little hands are covered in bruises and blisters. At its most hazardous, this "occupation" causes severe injuries and even results in maiming and death when heavy stones fall or the hammer in weary hands sometimes misses its aim. These children know no rest, no play, no learning, nothing but the grim grind of a joyless existence.
Most of the children belong to families of migrant labourers and the fate of these young boys and girls of our country is aptly described in the following extract from the report of the fact finding team:
"Each stomach unto itself and each puttu (puttu is an iron basin used to carry material) tells a tale. Only puttus cannot speak and so breathes easy the labour officer, the contractor, the mine owner, the trader, the money-lender, the exporter, the minister, the bureaucrat, the consumer and the rest of the world. It is only our mother who cannot rest even while she falls at the feet of the contractors and begs that we be sent to the gallows of the mines."
The product of the work of these children necessitates a hectic movement of people, vehicles of all sorts and sizes: trucks, bulldozers, crushers, jeeps and wagons on rail tracks, ships and so on. All these vehicles and indeed the livelihoods of all those who operate or drive them are dependent on the lives of the little children who are at the bottom of the mining pile.
The list of working mines as of 2004 shows that there are three major mines in Bellary range extending over an area of 81.30 hectares, six big mines in Hospet range with 725.52 hectares and a total of 37 mines spread over 2671.37 hectares in Sandur range with an average lease period of 10 years. It is difficult to obtain accurate data and information on the number of mines, the extent of mining activities, the labour force involved and the trade routes of each of these minerals.
There is a lot of illegal mining with a strong nexus between layers of politicians, mine owners, traders, contractors, exporters, transporters and owners of processing units. As per the list of leases for the year 2004, most of the mining is being done by small mining companies while there are a few large public sector companies like NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation), Mysore Minerals Ltd and some private ones like Vijayanagara Steels. Furthermore, much of the work is sub-contracted to private miners and contractors. We were told that mineral exports to China, Korea and other countries started after 1995 and have now grown into a major export industry.
According to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, children are prohibited from working in quarrying and mining as these fall under "hazardous industries." The employment of children in mining activities is illegal under the mining law. In spite of this, children continue to be engaged in mining work from dawn to dusk in our country today. The National Child Labour Programme is designed precisely to release and rehabilitate children who are under the purview of the Act. Nothing has been done so far on this score.
The state of Karnataka is not the only mining region to engage child labour in India. Large numbers of children are engaged in work in the mines of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Jharkhand, to name just a few states in gross violation of human rights. The children are sacrificed so that crores of rupees of profits may be heaped up. Is it not shameful that India continues to produce its wealth based on the exploitation of a vast army of abused and unprotected children? Must we continue to be insensitive to the exploitation of children?
Of what use are the values enshrined in the Constitution of India pledging to uphold justice, equity and the dignity of one and all? Of what value is our globalised market economy if it gives rise to such a brutalised society? It is a reflection on the moral turpitude of an Indian society lacking in conscience which permits such a fierce form of injury to our little children.
We are proudly part of a wise old country that boasts of civilisational culture, fine human sentiments and dharma. However, the involvement of child labour in the mining industry is a stain on the fabric of our modern society. India must rid herself of these practices and restore the principles of fair treatment for all. Pressure must be exerted on the government to act immediately and impose the law on unscrupulous employers. A price must be paid for breaking the backs of India's children.