Bangalore’s working children: uniting for their rights

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There are over 20 million children working in various industries across India. They form a formidable yet cheap work force in the country. The Indian constitution outlaws child labour and treats working children as criminals. But for many of them work isn't a choice, it's a compulsion.

The Concerned for Working Children, a Bangalore-based NGO, has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, for its work among children.

Helping hand
Mahesh and Venkatesh, both 11 years old, are working children in east Bangalore. Their families migrated from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh to look for better earning opportunities. Having little say over their fate, they both lent their families a helping hand with the finances.

"When I was eight, my mother asked me if I could work. She didn’t force it on me, but I understood her need," says Mahesh. "My father is an alcoholic and he spends money, brings none home. So the burden falls square on my mother and me. My sister is still young – she’s just seven – and can’t work.”

Long days
Both boys have tough and long days – they wake up at 4 a.m., put in a few hours at the market, rush to school, return home and get back to household work, get time to study and do homework, and then meeting friends before calling it a day.

Criminals?
But its not the rough schedule that’s the most troublesome for Mahesh and Venkatesh. “Sometimes when we try working, people treat us like criminals. The police will come and lock us up. I don’t want people to treat me as a criminal. I am not a criminal. I am working to earn a livelihood and to support my family, I am not stealing from anyone,” Mahesh says.

Over the years Mahesh and Venkatesh have learned about their rights as child workers through the Bangalore-based Concerned for Working Children (CWC) organisation. Nandana Reddy, head of the CWC, says they have organised an exclusive working children’s union called the Bhima Sangh – a first of its kind in Asia.

Support
“The Bhima Sangha holds meetings once every month where working children come together to discuss their issues. Initially they were all out there as individuals without any support. Now they have each other, they are together and that makes them stronger. That allows them to be vocal about their rights,” she says.

For its work among children, the CWC has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

“If I can study, I'd like to become an officer," Mahehs says, "but if that doesn’t work out, I will be happy to run a shop – a mobile repair shop or something like that.”

Venkatesh wants to do more for the community. Being multi-lingual, he already acts as a translator for migrant patients at the nearest government hospital. Like all children, they hope for a “happy future.”

 

All pictures taken by Felix Gaedtke (www.felixgaedtke.com)