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OPERATION 'SMILE': Over 200 Child Labourers Rescued in Hyderabad

By John Tharakan
A counsellor, Ms Anne Samyukta befriends the frightened children who have been rescued
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Hyderabad, Jan. 25. Over 200 children, held bondage as child labourers, were rescued by the city police of Hyderabad on Saturday, 24 January, from one apartment building in Talabkatta, Bhavaninagar, Hyderabad. Finding no appropriate place to shelter these hapless children, most of whom are from Bihar, they were brought to Don Bosco Navajeevan, Ramanthapur where the Salesians, staff and especially resident children have been going out of their way to make them feel comfortable and secure. The operation based on a tip off was carried out by over 400 police personnel under the leadership of Dy. Commissioner of Police, Mr V. Satyanarayana. It is said a cordon and search operation as part of anti-terrorism checks led to his huge rescue operation.
Though the newspaper reports said that most of the children were below 12 years, a number of them could be over 18 years. They hail mostly from Bihar. They were brought to the city by owners of bangle manufacturing units hailing from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. The parents of the children have received advances to the tune of 10 to 20 thousand Rupees.

Further, the children used to be paid only two to five thousand rupees a month as wages and were made to work for long hours and not allowed to leave the place of work. The newspaper reports said that children who should be holding books or playing games were working with chemicals and in hazardous conditions.

It is said that the police have taken into custody as many as 20 brokers and employers involved in child and bonded labour. A police official described the high tech vigilance used by the owners with CCTV Cameras monitoring the work of these children. They also mentioned that those who did not perform were beaten. The children were not provided blankets or warm clothes.

The rescue operation was a part of Operation SMILE, a month long programme initiated by the Home Ministry on New Year's Day this year, and carried out by the CID department. As they had not given prior information about it to the other departments, the people of the Labour Department (NCLP) and the Child Welfare Department were taken by surprise and did not know how to handle the huge number of children suddenly brought to them.

Though the TV news bulletins flashed the news that the children would be accommodated in different children's homes, at the end of the day, all the children except 3 girls were brought to Don Bosco Navajeevan, Ramanthapur. Interestingly, the media did not realize this and hence there was no secondary abuse of these children by them.

What happened after the Media hype of the Rescue?

Meeting the children we get a different story. They were brought to Navajeevan by government Road Transport buses in the evening. At first they were lined up in the basket ball court and faced the onslaught of a host of mosquitoes that had seemed to have come for new blood. Initially the children were very silent. After they had eaten some biscuits and later had supper, they began to smile and talk.

The following day after breakfast and with the TV on, the decibels started going up. The Navajeevan children were their real friends and guardians at this hour of need. They cleaned up the place for them, constantly supplying drinking water, providing blankets, serving food, arranging entertainment and so on. They too had similar experiences and it was easy for them to empathize with these children.

In the friendly atmosphere, the children gradually started sharing their stories. The bigger boys are feeling their confinement. Some of them claimed to have had a comfortable life with the money they earned, and even  expressed their sympathy for the arrested employers. Others acknowledged the horrendous conditions in which they lived and worked.

We do not know how long the children will be here. As the day progressed, more and more children were brought in by the concerned police after informing the CWC. Looking at some of the smaller children who are crying for their parents, one wonders whether reaching targets has affected the so-called rescue. The officials, including the CWC members, have not turned up today, being Sunday! Volunteers from Divya Disha and Child Line were here the whole day to gather information about each child. Tomorrow is Republic Day. The CWC will have the sitting here regardless of the holiday.  One wonders whether the officials will breathe a sigh of relief on 31st January that Operation SMILE is over, or whether the efforts to eradicate child labour will continue.

Dilemmas in the Efforts to Eradicate Child Labour

Dealing with Child Labour is not easy. The poor parents look for a way to supplement their meagre income with the contributions that their children can make. They themselves might have been child labourers and have received no education. They continue on a beaten track that assures them survival.

On the other hand employers need their work done; child labour makes work cheaper!

Nonetheless, the situation of child labour is serious and needs to be addressed. The Nobel Prize to Kailash Sathyarthi in 2014 is a call to all Indians to join hands to fight child labour. Any number of Operation SMILE can only serve to stir the hornet's nest. There will be accusations and counter accusations. The officials will blame the parents and employers. They may also blame one another in the different departments.

Absence of planning and Coordination

From what transpired in front of us it was evident that there was neither planning nor coordination, and absolutely no focus on children. They have no plan on what to do with the children. To begin with, they brought the children with no plans or arrangements for the accommodation of children and their need for food, warm clothing, and toiletries. Many individuals from different departments gathered at the premises, and each talking on the mobile phones to their bosses who were dishing out orders at will, but not doing much to satisfy the immediate needs of the children.

A so-called counsellor from Child line was standing with a mask as if the children would contaminate him. So were at least five other volunteers who came to meet the children. At our insistence they had the courtesy to remove the masks. Without genuine interest in the children, and sincere faith in the possibility of change, these efforts are bound to be doomed.

The police came tired, though satisfied at the good work done. They understood the need to change into more friendly attire and obliged without any hesitation. A policeman came on the bike with the siren blaring. We had to stop him before more damage could be done. He thought he could help by putting some fear into the children.

The labour department officials were peeved that they were not involved. They had not done their work and were embarrassed that other departments had stolen the limelight! Interestingly, they were willing to talk more about responsibility than about power. They admitted that many of these children had been rescued from the same area and brought before the CWC earlier.

How to prevent child labour was the constant topic for discussion! On Monday the CWC is beginning their sittings to address the situation of each child. The problem is complicated. They themselves have no resources or personnel to carry out their fond desires to help the children. They say that they want to use this opportunity to bring about lasting change with regard to child labour, beginning with these children.



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