Living sequestered in a campus such as ours, it is easy for us here to forget that there is a world outside, where everything is not as easy as we have it here. Indeed that has been one of the things that had caught my attention ever since I came to college. Situated right in the middle of nowhere, 200 kms from Kolkata, IIT Kharagpur is the perfect atmosphere for academia. We students always find time to involve ourselves in all the myriad activities that throng the campus calendar. But as I mentioned, we find it too easy to pass off the signs of underdevelopment as close as a kilometre outside the campus gates. Tribals living off scraps, children working in the eateries on campus, broken roads, the lot. Years of communist people have done nothing for this state.
Perhaps the most in-your-face aspect is the child labour. Children work on all the eateries on campus, including the late night eateries inside the halls of residence. I talked to Bimal, about 14 years old, who was working in one of those eateries, and one of the few who knew Hindi. He seemed happy, said that the owner treated him well. And he went to school as well.
The law of course does not permit him to work, but he seemed better off with the job. And here the moral question arises. Do we have the right to enforce the law and get the child away from the work? Are we not robbing him of what he was earning for his family?
I went and met them. Bimal lived in a small chawl just outside campus (distinct from an urban chawl, where the houses are much closer together). All the houses were kuccha, made from mud and thatch, needless to say there was no running water or electricity. This was one of the many small settlements that dot the land around our campus. Most of the manual labor for work in the campus was drawn from here. I met his mother and sister, and with Bimal translating, talked to them. As was expected they had nothing good to say of the administration, the only good things they have are because of the IIT (the campus Rural Development Center works with these settlements to help them in irrigation, cultivation, and new techniques which help them to be self sufficient). I asked his mother if they voted, and they said no. When asked why, they said they had lost faith in the system years ago. It wasnt hard to see why Lalgarh only a 100 km away is Naxal hotbed. I also figured out that his parents thought Bimal was old enough to work, and that since he was attending school as well, he was doing the right thing for the family. I realized that this was a matter of pride for Bimal, even at such a young age.
The question I had to ask myself is what is the right thing to do? What would I achieve if I took the job away from the child and sent him to have a “normal” childhood? How far would the State’s child support machinery support him? Would he be able to get three square meals a day? What about the income that the family lost? We might argue that it is not a child’s place to work and earn money, but you also have to look at the fact that we live in a far from ideal society, where you couldnt guarantee a childs future just because the State was bound to take care of him. Wouldn’t it be better if I just let him be? I am sure our lawmakers would have deliberated at length on this aspect, but I do not see a simple answer. One of the deficiencies in our system seems to be the lack of guarantee of support to rescued children. Although NGOs in big cities seem to be making inroads into this aspect, out here Bimal is just another statistic.