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September 26, 1997


Children of a steel God

Dominic Xavier's illustration It was only after 12-year-old Balamurugan lost his left eye that he realised his mother was also one of the villains in his bleak little life.

Pushed into the role of a bread earner by her about two years ago, Balamurugan went to work in one of the numerous stainless steel and aluminium units situated in Royapuram, north Madras. One day, as he was assisting an older co-worker on the polishing machine, a flying sliver of steel struck him in the eye. He shrieked in pain but, instead of medical relief, he received a heavy scolding and a chastening smack on the back for making a ''fuss''.

When the pain became unbearable and he was unable to continue his tasks, the employer sent him home, doling out a largesse of 25 paise to buy an eye ointment. Balamurugan was living alone at the time, as his father had deserted the family and his mother was away at their village. Desolate, and with no one to look after him, the boy suffered in silence and lost the eye for want of speedy medical help.

In another horrifying case, Shiva, 13 years old, was working at a steel unit in J J Nagar, north Madras, when suddenly he went into convulsions and fell on top of the buffer machine. Although the boy had a history of epileptic seizures -- ironically, the reason cited by his mother for not admitting him to school -- and the employer was aware of it, he worked for over 12 hours a day hunched over the buffer and polishing machine, a life-threatening job which fetched him just Rs 15 a day.

But for the swift reflexes of his co-workers who pulled him out in time, Shiva would have been ripped apart by the machine. He survived, but sustained heavy injuries and deep cuts on his chest and thigh that required prolonged medical treatment costing over Rs 500. The employer only ''advanced'' a sum of Rs 40.

Strangely enough, Shiva's mother is not complaining. On the contrary, she has nothing but gratitude for the employer for helping her son out by giving him a job in the first place. ''The accident was Shiva's own fault," she says. "He should have been more careful.''

"North Madras houses a large number of small, unregistered stainless steel factories where thousands of children spend a major portion of their lives earning their livelihood," says Virgil D'Sami of Arunodhaya, a non-governmental organisation devoted to the upliftment of such children. "Generally located in slums and housed in small sheds with poor ventilation and lighting, these factories emit ear-piercing sounds and chemical dust."

Arunodhaya is working in three pockets, consisting of 15 slums in north Madras, and helps about 2,500 children. Stating that of the 1,935 workers employed in the 165 factories located in the area, 1,017 or 52.5 per cent were children below the age of 14 years, D'Sami said, ''Children are employed in all stages of work, beginning with the process of cutting the stainless steel sheets, tinkering, welding, polishing on the buffer machine to actually packing the finished products.''

Arunodhaya, which was established in 1992 with the main objective of restoring childhood to street and working children, is beginning to make its presence felt. It claims to have rehabilitated a number of working children by offering coaching classes at a non-formal education centre. A few of these children had, at one time or another, attended a private or government school before they were inducted into factories.

Nasarbatcha, 14, falls into this category. His father is a roadside vendor, while his mother rolls beedis at home for a living. Claiming that they could no longer afford the high fees charged by his school, his parents set him to work in a steel factory for a daily handout of Rs 6. Nasarbatcha was only 10 years old then.

Arunodhaya offered him a place at its non-formal education centre. Since his education expenses were met by them, Nasarbatcha's parents had no objection. The boss at the factory had no objection either. To everyone's pleasant surprise, he even allowed the boy to knock off work an hour earlier so he could attend the classes. Today, Nasarbatcha is studying in class 10 at a corporation school.

When questioned, many employers went out of their way to underscore their empathy with the children. They claimed that they employed children on compassionate grounds so that they could help their needy and destitute families. As Muthukrishnan, 58, owner of a small steel factory, says, ''I am not forcing children to work here. They come of their own accord due to financial compulsions.''

Muthukrishan, who has been in this business for over 40 years, started out as a child worker himself at the tender age of six. Toiling for others till just two years ago when he bought his own shop, he is mainly occupied in fulfilling orders worth Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 per month from dealers residing in Sowcarpet, five km away. But, despite his altruistic claims, Muthukrishnan is no less self-serving than other employers, opting for child workers to do menial tasks which adult workers would either shirk at or opt for only if they received a higher wage.

As most of the children are employed by unregistered rickety units working as sub-contractors and receiving orders through middlemen from long-established big metal manufacturers, D'Sami said she raised the issue with Ekamberan, the president of the Tamil Nadu Stainless Steel Vessels Manufacturers Association. She urged him to discourage the members of the association from patronising the sub-contractors who employ children directly or indirectly. Beyond saying that the members of his association did not employ child labour and that the middlemen were to be blamed for this, he did not respond, she claimed.

C J Paul, chief community development officer, Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, calls for an attitudinal change in the prevailing culture and line of thinking on the subject. He said there were approximately 15,000 child workers in the city's slums. Giving an overview of the slum board's programmes for community development, he said they had taken up a separate project to eliminate child labour.

The project envisages identifying different categories of child workers in Madras, conducting orientation programmes for government officials and NGO functionaries on the Child Labour Act, highlighting socio-economic concepts on eliminating the problem of child labour, establishing income generating activities for skill development and supplementary family income and constructing shelter homes for the rehabilitation of child workers.

''We are trying to show that the issue of child labour is not a government issue. The government does not employ children,'' says Paul. ''The focus now has to be on the parents and the need to sensitise them. The child had become a neglected factor in all sectors of society, both among the poor and the affluent."

Though the Factories Act, 1948, clearly prohibits employment of children in factories, the practice continues unabated. Owners of unregistered units are beyond the legislation's reach. ''Though there is a provision in the act to cover even small factories having less than 10 employees, none of the state governments have the capacity to enforce this due to the inadequate number of inspectors,'' says Dr E Ilamathian of the Tamil Nadu Institute of Labour Studies.

Dr Ilamathian, who is also the state's project coordinator for the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, cites the cases of Kerala and Karnataka where labour inspectors have been given powers to inspect units not covered by the Factories Act. Giving such enforcement powers to labour functionaries would go a long way in containing the problem, he felt.

A study undertaken by Arunodhaya in 1994 found that work in the small steel factories posed grave health hazards to the children. The atmosphere inside the factories was unhygienic. Working in poor light and ventilation, without any protective covering, the young workers constantly inhale the metal and chemical dust, thereby ruining their respiratory system. Those involved in welding work were found to suffer from eye defects and also ran the danger of being maimed or killed even in case of slight carelessness.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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