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Reclaiming childhood from the pits of Jharkhand


May 6, 2011 - Ranchi

Sambhu Kumar, 14, gingerly descends into an abandoned mine in the Giridih district of Jharkhand. In one hand, the young boy clutches iron rods, heated to allow greater leverage in digging. In the other hand, he carries a sack. To descend, he uses crevices on the walls of the pit, where one slip will result in a 10 feet deep fall.

If the wet black walls cave in, he will be buried alive. Since he is mining illegally-these mines have been declared unsafe for operations-his family will get no compensation.

Once at the bottom, Sambhu uses the heated rod to scrape out chunks of coal. Hours later, he emerges from the pit, his sack full, sweat pouring from every pore of his bony body.

Once out, he has to pedal away furiously - if spotted, he will be arrested under the Anti Goonda Act - the law enforced by the government to curb illegal mining. One day's work fetches the boy twenty rupees, which he uses to buy food for his below-poverty-line family.

"When I was younger, the dark caves used to terrify me but then I realised that I better get used to it. I need to gather coal to survive; I know of no other way to make sure we live," he says.

Sambhu's father died in a mine accident some years ago, so his mother and three younger siblings depend on him for their daily needs. The house that they live in is a temporary shelter: they lost their previous home when the area was cordoned off for mining; they did not get any compensation. None of the siblings have ever been to school.

The Mines Act, 1952, stipulates that anyone below 18 years of age cannot be employed in mines; but children like Sambhu operate under the radar, working in the hundreds of abandoned mines that dot the entire coal-rich Chhota Nagpur area.

Many children also work - illegally - with the adults on the functional mines in the area, getting Rs. 150 per day - a lucrative bargain for the middlemen who 'source' the children.

Working in mines is not just a dangerous occupation, but affects overall respiratory health as well. With the frequent exposure to dust and coal particles, these children suffer from problems such as Asthma and chronic cough. Alcohol is the most available recourse to deal with constant coughs as the primary health centre is out of reach for the tribal hamlets.

The abysmal state of poverty that the families are living in is a relatively new phenomenon for this traditionally self-sufficient tribal community. Over the past few decades, the forests on which they depended on for food, fodder and fuel have depleted drastically, much of it taken over for mining.

Illegal mining has now become a livelihood norm for everyone, not just children. Their health and lives are both at risk: the dangerous and dirty job makes the men alcohol-dependant very quickly.

Corruption and government apathy have done the rest: getting work is difficult, and casual labour pays very poorly. The safety nets - schools, health centers, ration shops - are largely absent, putting the right to lead a life of dignity further out of reach. This community, once agrarian and reasonably self-reliant, is now used as underpaid daily wage labourers in coal and mica mining. With no employment guarantees for adults, children like Sambhu are forced to make hard decisions.

"In a resource-rich state like Jharkhand, these vulnerabilities are newly created. For children like Sambhu and his family, the immediate need is to make sure adult livelihood options pay optimal returns," says Saibal Baroi from CRY's Jharkhand team.

CRY partners Jago Foundation, a local organisation to form groups of children - some child labourers, some school-goers, who took up the cudgels on behalf of their impoverished families. "The larger vision is to make sure the control over local resources goes back into the hands of these communities." With this in mind, Jago Foundation runs community-level awareness and mobilisation initiatives that exhort and enable people to demand their fair entitlements.

Successes are few and gruelingly won: the community workers and children go door to door to convince people to stand up for their rights, organise demonstrations in front of government officials to demand just wages, and set up self-help groups to make sure people have something to fall back on in times of extreme distress.

The seeds of change have been sown in the region, and in Sambhu's life. "None of my Brothers and Sisters will be forced to descend into those hellish caves for a living," he says.

The local children's group appoints its own 'Ministers' in order to understand and imbibe the values of public governance better. Teenage girls have formed groups that keep an eagle eye on any possible child marriage - the group aims to make the area child-marriage-free.

Women's groups have taken strong steps to stop the sale of alcohol in their villages: they believe that the easy availability pushes the men into alcoholism. This last campaign is an eminently successful one, supported, interestingly, by the men themselves.

The Charkha Development Communication network is of the view that to keep up the tempo, both government and civil society has to step in to make sure economic exploitation does not guise itself as growth: most of the resources for which the State is known is fetching money for people other than the original inhabitants of these forests. What's more, it is leaving in its wake a kind of dehumanising poverty, like Sambhu's, which the region has never ever experienced. By Priya Zutshi

ANI

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