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A Disturbing Trend: Dying Young In India – OpEd


By Aijaz Zaka Syed

AT 10, Moin Khan would have been younger than my son. He was seven when he hugged his parents in Madhubani, Bihar, goodbye to go with a relative to work in his factory in Delhi. The ‘uncle’ promised his parents a “bright future” for the boy and prosperity for the desperately poor family.

After three years of toiling 15 hours a day, 7-days a week in a sweatshop producing bindis (bright dots that Hindu women sport on forehead), Moin died this week when his employer repeatedly hit him.

In all probability he would have got a quiet burial and you and I wouldn’t have heard of Moin and his brief, brave tryst with life. His tragedy was discovered only when the local mosque committee got suspicious over the bindi factory owner’s haste to bury the boy in the adjacent cemetery.

Police were called in when they noticed bruises all over the child’s young body. It had quietly and patiently taken all the life’s rough lessons and beatings on itself so he could make his parents and siblings happy. Moin’s ordeal was far from over even after the nightmare that took him from playground to the graveyard. His body lay unclaimed three days after his death as his parents in the distant Bihar tried to raise money to travel to Delhi.

Meanwhile the ever famished media vultures, looking for a break from the saturation coverage of corruption scams and daily cricket matches, ran with the “human interest” story. And in the end that’s what Moin’s tragedy will boil down to-merely another story. Day one, day two, day three…who’ll remember him after that?


Incidentally, there are hundreds of thousands of Moins trudging out there, fighting to survive the dark, dreary dungeons of Delhi that would put the Dickensian England to shame. In the capital alone at least half a million children are caught in this vicious cycle of crushing poverty and criminal exploitation. Things are little better in Mumbai, the movie wonderland. Or in Kolkata in the east and Chennai down south for that matter.

Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, is the worst violator. Home to hundreds of sweatshops and cottage industries producing the famous locks of Aligarh to the brass and glassware of Moradabad to the intricate Zari fabrics, it employs hundreds of thousands of children in hard, rigorous jobs that adults would find taxing.

The state is also home to the largest Muslim community in the land. With the increasingly marginalized community surviving on these rare arts and crafts, its young are also drawn into the same vicious vortex before they know it.

In fact, it is the same story all across India. From begging and prostitution rackets to factories producing bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes) and firecrackers to pesticide-drenched farms, children are the first victims of all exploitation. It’s estimated that at least 30 million children in India have their innocence stolen not long after they arrive into this world.

It’s too terrifying even to imagine your children at the tender age of seven being snatched away by some stranger to spend all their waking hours working and working. Until they could take it no more. Which is what happened in Moin’s case. There are many who are even younger than Moin. Few of them survive the endless physical, mental and in many cases sexual abuse. They either die young like Moin or grow up into physical-mental wrecks and often as hardened criminals.

Like your children and mine, Moin too must have had his share of dreams and aspirations. And his parents must have had their own dreams and aspirations for him just like you and I do for our children. How would his parents bear the backbreaking burden of carrying his tiny, lifeless body back home? How would they live with the death of their hopelessly young son desperately trying to share their burden?

Or maybe I’m just being melodramatic. The kind of tough life these folks lead in thousands of remote villages and towns across India, tragedies like this one are part of existence. In all probability, they will mourn their son for a week or two and move on. When life is a daily battle for survival, you can’t afford to spend time crying over the loved ones.

But can India afford to move on too, taking this tragedy in her stride? What is a child’s life worth in a billion-strong country anyway? However, if the nation wants to save the lives of millions of its children, it would do well to treat Moin’s death as a wake-up call.

I know child labor has never been one of our favorite topics for drawing room conversation. Whenever a tragedy like this strikes, it does break through our veneer of indifference but then we shrug it off: “It’s sad of course but what can we do?” We move on.

When Western journalists or Hollywood dream merchants turn their spotlight on our dark underbelly, like they did in “Slumdog Millionaire”, we get all worked up, indignant at the West’s preoccupation with pornography of poverty.

Of course, child labor is not peculiar to India or even Asia. English mystic William Blake tackled the issue as early as 1789 in “The Chimney Sweeper”. The poem one had read ages ago as a student is considered the strongest critique yet of children’s exploitation in the enlightened England but applies to Moin and all the less fortunate children of God:

“When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry, ‘weep! weep! weep! weep!’ So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.”

So child labor isn’t something we invented. It’s practiced all over the world, wherever poverty exists and thrives. But perhaps nowhere in the world has it been institutionalized, tolerated and perpetuated as we have.

Five years after India banned child labor, it remains the shame of the nation that is these days feted as the next superpower alongside China. But how could India dream of global leadership when millions of its children are consumed every year by economic exploitation or simply abused to death as Moin was?

We have enough laws, from the Child Labor Act to the Juvenile Justice Act to the Right to Education Act, not to mention the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child to which India is a signatory that should have helped us banish the scourge of children’s exploitation. Children who ought to be in school or playing with their friends are trading away their innocence for a living in factories, farms, hotels and virtually everywhere but where they should be.

I know it’s easier said than done. No parents if they could help it would like their young children to work. It’s poverty and the impossibility of their circumstances that forces them into it. When parents earn what is barely enough to feed themselves, let alone the whole family, every single rupee counts.

This is why more than the laws or lectures to parents on importance of education, what we need is collective social and economic action to stamp out the scourge. And the state must take the lead in such initiatives.

If India allocates even a fraction of what it splurges on useless military junk or quixotic obsessions like rediscovering the Moon, it would make a life-saving difference to millions of its children. Moin’s story remained untold until it was too late to help him. It must not be the fate of millions of other Moins out there.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published columnist. Write to him at [email protected]

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