No Regrets...I Hope So.
One late afternoon, there was some commotion on the street outside my house. I enquired and found that a household in the neighbourhood had lost their girl servant. The members of the house were frantically looking for her everywhere. Somebody had seen her follow their cook. Shoba, the cook, works in their house and leaves for her house, after work, every afternoon. The driver of the house too had seen the girl follow Shoba that afternoon. But nobody knew the house address of Shoba. It took about five hours to find Shoba's address, and fortunately the girl was in her house. The household accused Shoba of trying to 'kidnap' the girl and threatened to complain to the police. Yes...the girl was just 11 years old.
Yasmin, the 11 year old girl, was from Bellary, a district in North Karnataka. She did not remember when her father had died and her mother had died sometime back. She was abandoned by her relatives to fend for herself. Under such abject circumstances, she ended up as a child labourer in a household in Bellary. Her employers in Bellary had not looked after her well, so she had decided to flee to Bangalore. She had come to Bangalore as a ticketless passenger in a train. At the Bangalore railway station, she had stood pleading with the passing strangers to take her home. A newly married couple decided to take her home. But, in about a fortnight's time, they realised that they could no longer stay away from their house for long hours with a dependent girl at home. She had become more of a hinderance to them than a facilitator. When they were contemplating as to what to do with her, their relatives (who are my neighbours) chanced on them. They (my neighbours) decided to take the girl to their house as a servant.
The new house where Yasmin was taken was very big. Her employers (masters, to be precise, because they had not contemplated on paying her) were very rich. Yasmin would do the household chores like sweeping, cleaning, dish-washing, etc. Her masters would scold her if she did not work to their satisfaction. Sometimes one of the women of the household would even beat her. She was not given good clothes to wear. She was served stale food. After a fortnight in that house, Yasmin decided to flee the house. She did not know where to go or whom to approach for help, she had nobody to call her own. She decided to follow the cook Shoba to her house and ask for help.
That afternoon, Yasmin had followed Shoba to her house. Shoba had not realised that Yasmin was following her. On reaching her house, Shoba, to her surprise, found that Yasmin had followed her. Yasmin had pleaded with Shoba not to send her back to that house and had told her that she was not treated well by her masters. Shoba could see that Yasmin was wearing old and dirty clothes and had no doubt that she was being treated unfairly by her employers. They had not paid her any wages and that meant they had a free servant...a slave. Shoba gave Yasmin a bath and gave her an old night gown to wear. Shoba was wondering what to do with the girl, whether to send her back to the house, admit her to an orphanage, or to keep her in her own house with her own two daughters and send her to a government run girls' school. By that time, Yasmin's employers had reached her house and had threatened to complain to the police that she had kidnapped Yasmin. Shoba, being a clever woman, threatened them in return, that they were guilty of employing a child labourer. Soon a compromise was reached, Yasmin's employers assured Yasmin that they would not beat her and convinced her to return to their house with them. And so Yasmin was back in the house she had left. From then onwards, the doors of that house were kept locked.
After a couple of days, Yasmin sneaked out of the house and again went to Shoba's house. This time Shoba was confused as to what to do with the girl. She did not want any bad blood with her employers and wanted to give them another chance. She took Yasmin back to her employer's house, warned them that if the girl followed her again, she'd take her to some orphanage. The employers assured Shoba that they'd deal with Yasmin fairly and that they'd also marry her when she was of the right age. The employers wondered how the girl had escaped from the house. They decided to watch her carefully from then onwards.
I, being an onlooker to these unfortunate happenings, was very disturbed. I felt very bad that a young girl was made to live in a house against her wish and she had nowhere else to go, and that she had nobody to help her. I knew that a new law in India bans children under 14 from working as domestic servants or in food stalls. It also prevents children from working in teashops, restaurants, spas, hotels, resorts and other recreational centres. Anyone found violating the ban would be penalised under the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986. Punishment could range from a jail term of three months to two years and/or a fine of 10,000 to 20,000 rupees ($225 to $450).
But I'm not a stickler to such laws. Making laws is very easy, but what about rehabilitation? Poverty drives parents to send their children to work instead of schools. The Government rarely provides any means of solving poverty, or making enough provisions so that parents can atleast feed their families without having to send their children to work. There are many schemes on paper like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Midday Meals Scheme, etc., but they're more theoritical than practical. The middle-men and bureaucrats siphon off large portions of funds meant for such schemes. Failure of such schemes leaves no hope to the poor who see no other way but to send their children for work. Where will children as many as 20 million working as servants in India go if they are prevented from working and feeding themselves? Go back to their parents who make them work in farms but still unable to feed them? Go to orphanages run by crooks who make millions of rupees in the name of Non-Governmental Organisations with meagre facilities? Will these organisations be able to provide food and education for all the 20 million children?
I, for one, would've never complained to anyone if a child was working in a house, if she/he were happy doing that work and if her/his employers were treating her/him fairly and justly, because I know that my country is poor and corrupt. I'm not only talking about a corrupt polity or bureaucracy, I'm talking about the maximum number of selfish and corrupt minds in our country who say one thing and who do the other, who basically are hypocrites, who say they are against bribes, but they themselves bribe their way out of troubles or themselves accept bribes, who say they don't want anybody to wield unfair influence/power, but who themselves take names of politicians/bureaucrats when caught on the wrong side, and most people want that a rule should apply only to 'others' but not to themselves. I may sound cynical to many, but ask yourself as to how much of what I've said applies to you, even if one of them applies, you should conclude that I'm not being cynical and I'm just saying the truth. Reality bites.
But Yasmin's case was different. She did not want to live in that house. And I couldn't have let her live in a house where she was forcibly held. I wouldn't let her stay there, even if she were treated fairly and justly, because she didn't 'want' to stay there. I decided to write to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) about her and seek help. I searched on Google for NGOs dealing with child labour in Bangalore. I found a couple of them. I immediately wrote to them. The NGOs responded. I gave the address of the house to one of the NGOs, and in a couple of days, four persons from the NGO arrived at that house and demanded that Yasmin be handed over to them. They were legally authorised to take the girl to an orphanage. The members of the household were furious, they took names of influential politicians in the State, threatened that they'd hunt down the complainant, etc. But the persons from the NGO were not new to such threats. Initially Yasmin was unwilling to go with them as they were complete strangers to her. But a lady among the NGO workers spoke to her, told her that the place where she'd be taken was good and she'd like it there. Yasmin finally agreed to go with them. On their way back, the NGO slapped an FIR against her employers in the nearby police station. Throughout the incident, my name was kept confidential.
After a couple of days, I wanted to see where Yasmin was lodged and whether she was happy. So I and my friend went to Baale, an orphanage for young girls, on the outskirts of Bangalore, it was Yasmin's new home. The house was about 2500 sq. ft., with a kitchen, a sleeping room and a study cum TV room. There was a large garden in front of the house. There were 71 girls, all below 16 years, in that house. There was a head nurse to look after them. Some of the girls went to a government run school nearby; others did not have any formal education whatsoever and were taught basic lessons in the house by a teacher who visited them during the day. We were offered tea prepared by the girls.
A frail, tanned girl was introduced to me as Yasmin, that was the first time I saw her. She didn't know who I was. I asked her a few questions and she answered them with one liners. She didn't show any signs of fear. She had matured beyond her age. She had no formal education. She smiled now and then. I asked her how she was treated in the house she came from. She said she was treated fairly. I asked her if her employers used to beat her and she denied. She said they used to scold her when she committed mistakes. As a last question, I asked her if she liked her new home or if she wanted to go back to that house, and to my solace, she said she liked the new place and she did not want to go back to the house she came from. The girls bid us a warm adieu as we left, it seemed they were used to bidding goodbyes to innumerable benefactors who visited them before they decided to sponsor things or provide funds to the orphanage.
As we left the place, a person from the neighbourhood accosted us, he said, " I see that you have come to help the orphanage. I advise you not to provide money, those who're running this orphanage are very corrupt, they've become rich at the cost of these girls, they don't provide these girls any education, there is no sense of hygiene, most of the girls regularly suffer from scabies, they don't even show them to any doctor, their charter authorises them to take care of only girls below the age of 16 after which they're abandoned, six of the girls who attained the age of 16 have been missing, god knows what they've done to those girls, people say they've transferred them to their farms in North Karnataka where they make them do unethical things, FIRs have been filed against the owners of this orphanage, they bribe all the policemen and reporters who come here, they fleece the foreigners of their money, they do nothing for the girls...the only fair thing happening here is that these girls are given food to eat..."
I was depressed that whole evening. I wondered if I did something good for the girl or whether, in the excitement to be a rule abiding citizen, did the mistake of sending her to a place where she was happy for the time being but where her future might be bleak. The only solace is that she has friends to relate to and she gets to eat what everybody else eats. If any of you happen to go to Baale, ask for Yasmin, see if she's doing fine.