Child labour: Rehabilitating a future

New Delhi: Freed from the vice-like grip of child labour, rehabilitation presents working children with a chance to rid themselves of the scourge`s burden and inspire a confident future for themselves.

Faint memories of his childhood still give Raju Singh, a former child labourer, company. Appearing to be in his early 20s, he doesn`t remember his exact age. He can, however, clearly recollect the name of his father, the day he was separated from his family at the busy Patna railway station and the one year he spent working at an eatery afterwards.

"The owner used to give me food, but did not give me wages," Singh, who was around 7 years at the time, says in the stillness of a seething summer day. "The dhaba was frequented by all sorts of people, some used to hit me others used to holler if they were unsatisfied with their order or if their daily requirement of liquor was not met" he says.

He escaped by taking a train to Delhi with Rs 100 in his pocket that was otherwise destined to buy a bottle of liquor for a patron. Once here, he felt the "hustle-bustle of the city" and "couldn`t comprehend what was happening" before finding his way to a shelter home run by Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), an NGO for street and working children.

Singh spent more than a decade at the place he initially framed in his mind as "a jail for children." He attempted to flee more than once and took almost 4 years to open up to the staff. Now, he has gained multimedia skills as part of rehabilitation training, navigates the bylanes of Old Delhi as a part-time tour guide and aspires to join the navy in the years to come.

Mazhar Khan, a counsellor at SBT, has worked with children like Singh since the last 10 years. He says that child labourers tend to have "bad perceptions towards themselves and the society" which leads to a deficit in trust.

Depression and the feelings of guilt and shame are common, even leading to "suicidal thoughts," which prompts the need for psychological rehabilitation to "come out of the trauma."

The process is long and depends on child to child, he says, but it all starts with assessing their mental status upon coming into the shelter home. While play therapy sessions are employed to gauge their "internal psyche," career counseling charts out potential education and vocation lines and medical intervention takes care of their overall health.

"We can`t force the child to talk freely. What we can do is observe to understand their signs," Khan, who attends to children who have been victims of other social ills like sexual abuse, he says.

Despite efforts to eliminate it, minors working at local eateries, as domestic help or as hard labour in industries are seen. "More than 90 per cent of the children are from outside Delhi," Raaj Mangal Prasad, chairperson of Child Welfare Committee (South Zone), estimates.

699 cases of child labour were brought before the authority, which decides on the rehabilitation and repatriation of working children rescued after raids in two districts, out of 3,852 others in almost 3 years. Usually trafficked, they belonged to various Indian states and neighbouring countries, he says.

In his opinion, a system wrought with stark "realities," including poverty and difficulties in monitoring children once they return back to their native places, should not be overlooked. There is also no way to determine if a former child labourer will again be sucked into the circle, and these demand a "pragmatic view" when it comes to rehabilitation.

With more than 30 years advocating for child rights behind him, Kailash Satyarthi, founder of NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, echoes a similar view.

In his experience, layers of intermediaries identify "pockets" of backward and insurgency-prone areas before approaching parents with an assurance of steady income through their children. Very often families complain to the authorities concerned or NGOs when they lose contact.

Satyarthi, whose organisation has taken part in numerous raids for rescuing child labourers and has shelter homes, says "when they come (working children) he/she is no longer a child in terms of behaviour" as they bear emotional scars.

While questioning "deep rooted public apathy" and alleged "lack of political and administrative will," he says, "What we have learnt through the years is that you have to give them (child labourers) a sense of dignity."

Empowering a working child takes an effort of which psychological and social stability are just two sides. Legal mechanisms have been put in place to ensure they get their economic dues, including backwages of the number of days they have not been paid, and their employers are put behind bars.

Pastel shades of green and blue wall enamel fuse amidst curious young glances that gather around Shuchi Dhasmana, their English teacher at SBT-run DMRC rehabilitation centre located in Tis Hazari. Winning the trust of former working children can take time of even months, she says.