Adults before 185 min read
When he said his name was Shaktiman, I almost didn’t believe him. But as he told me his story it was clear to me, that like the first superhero of Indian Television, he too was capable of extraordinary things.
Shaktiman is 16 years old. He hails from Barahipur in Uttar Pradesh. An 8th standard school dropout Shaktiman never enjoyed going to school. When a Seth offered him work he seized upon the opportunity and left for Manipal. After three days in the train he was alone in an unknown town. He did not have family here and found it hard to grasp the language but he was quickly put to work at a paani puri stall. After eight months of working in Udupi, he relocated his paani puri stall next to Malaysian Mess in Manipal. Today, he sells paani puri at Gupta Chat Corner, Manipal.
“Back at home, I used to sell Banarasi paan. We had a small shop and when my dad used to leave for the market, I would sit at the shop for 2-3 hours.”
When asked why he came all the way to Manipal to work, his reply was quick, “After a certain age, all the boys in my village leave for work and you make more money in a place like Manipal. I haven’t gone home since I came which was nine months ago.”
Shaktiman knows no other life. “I don’t get much time to think about home. I wake up at six to make the puris. Then I take bath, have breakfast and prepare for the day’s work. By 3 o’clock, I have to get ready with the vegetables and the puris.”
Bablu (16) sells Paani puris as well, outside Hotel Shanthala at Tiger Circle, Manipal. Also from Uttar Pradesh, he is seen every day in his trademark light blue shirt, cutting onions and potatoes.
Similarly, Rahul (15) sells paani puri outside Nilgiris in Kadiyali, Udupi. He cycles the 5 km stretch to Udupi and back every day with a box full of puris and vegetables. “I go to school. I’m only here for the holidays. When the rain will come, I will go back home”, he said. Rahul comes from Manda, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. “In my holidays I don’t have anything to do at home, so I get on the train and come here.”
All three boys work under the same Seth. They hail from the same region near Benaras and came to Manipal under the care of Bhai Om Prakash and Seth Raj Kumar. When questioned, Om Prakash said that the authorities had tried to take Bablu away once and he had to produce a school certificate to show that he was a student. It’s apparent however that Bablu does not go to school. Indian child labour law prohibits child labour up to the age of 14. Going by Shaktiman’s claims about his age, the Seth is not breaking the law by employing him.
Ravi, 15, meanwhile works at Sindhi Mess, inside the MIT campus. He helps with odd jobs like handling the plates, washing the dishes etc. He dropped out of school in 3rd standard from Bagalkot in North Karnataka and came to Manipal with his family three years ago.
“When I came to Manipal, I first worked at DeeTee as a dishwasher for three years. My dad knew someone there and got me a job. I went to school up to 3rd standard but I didn’t have any interest in what they were teaching.”
There are more of them.
Two children (name and age unknown) work at Apoorva mess inside the MIT campus. Riaz Siddiqui works at a juice stall outside MIT with his brother. Ramacharya and Rajahuli (4th and 6th standard respectively) work as rag-pickers on the outskirts of Manipal.
The Modi government has recently legalised child labour even under the age of 14 in “select family enterprises” which is sufficiently vague, allowing it to be interpreted and exploited for nefarious purposes like cheap labour. This is the result of the latest amendment to the Child Labour Prohibition Act and the rationale behind this seems to be that work experience will give kids an entrepreneurial spirit. But treating the age of 14 as a magical barrier line in the development of a child is also counter-productive. It will take away the choice that children have in determining their future. The Prime Minister himself was a chaiwala at one point but he aspired to break out of it and today he commands the entire nation.
It will also lead to children getting shoe-horned into doing “select” jobs. They will have to take after their paan-wala and blacksmith parents without a choice. Most kids who work in menial jobs like selling chai or paani puri continue doing so believing there is no alternative. The beneficiaries of this law would be employers like factory owners who would benefit from using kids as cheap labour instead of able bodied men.
Manipal houses plenty of Shaktimans who are working every day for a living. They blend into the fabric of the town working in food stalls and hostel messes that you eat in every now and then. They come all the way from states like Uttar Pradesh in the hope of escaping the life that they are consigned to. But their situations here are similar.
The twisted irony here is that in a university town like Manipal, most students come from financially stable families and relish the food prepared by these children. Awareness is the first step to fighting any injustice in society. As more people become aware, more people will raise the questions and if the law makers cannot provide sufficient answers then maybe it is time for the law itself to be reworked.
As citizens, even you can help by informing child rights organisations the next time you notice a child working. Organisations like ‘Spoorthi Dhama’, operate in the Manipal and Udupi region, and they can intervene to ensure that the child working, is not subjected to hazardous conditions.
Edited by Sakhi Todi