SRINAGAR: Rafiqa is proud of having provided monetary support to her poor family for the past three years. At the age of 15 she started working as a domestic helper in her locality to overcome financial constraints faced by her family. Today, at 18, she calls herself a professional in doing needle work on shawls. Her dreams do not go beyond earning money for her family.
When asked if she ever thought of education she adds, “It would have taken me years to earn had I run after studies. I started working at a very young age, which was not otherwise possible.”
Rafiqa, along with her father who is a mechanic, supports a family of five. Being the eldest sibling amongst other four, Rafiqa shoulders the family responsibility.
Mohammad Iqbal, 68 years old, does not feel shy to admit having put his teenage son, Mehmood, to labour at a brick kiln in the outskirts of Valley to pay off the debts.
“I have taken debt from people and I have to pay it back. If my son won’t help me with it, who will?” Iqbal questions. He admits that the conditions of work are not healthy for his 14-year-old son but says, “I do not have an option.”
Scores of children like Mehmood and Rafiqa have been put to work in different sectors in Kashmir. Over the years, the menace of child labour has shown a drastic increase in the Valley.
According to the report, “Child labour in Jammu and Kashmir-Social, Economical and Ethical dimension,” there are 2.5 lakh child labourers in Kashmir alone. The study conducted by Professor Fayaz Ahmad Neika, Associate Professor of Management at Central University has shown drastic increase in child labour with children under the age group of 6-12 being worst hit. The research was carried out between 2008 and 2010 and over 500 children were interviewed.
The 2001 census counted 175,000 child labourers in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
A 2003 research study by the British non-governmental organisation, Save the Children, entitled ‘Adphail Gulab’ (Unbloomed Roses), found 22,000 child labourers in Kashmir – 19,000 working in carpet manufacturing units in the central district of Budgam and at least 2,000 employed in automobile workshops in Srinagar.
The major employers of children in Kashmir are the handicraft sector, automobile workshops, homes, brick kilns and agriculture. Most child labourers are illiterate or school dropouts.
In a 2009 study conducted by the Central Asian studies department at the University of Kashmir, it was stated that nearly 34 per cent of child labourers have only received a fifth-grade education, while just over 66 per cent have only studied up until the eighth grade.
Once they start working, 80 per cent of child labourers stop attending school altogether.
It states that 9.2 per cent of child labourers are between five and 10 years old, while 90 per cent of them are between 11 and 14 years old. More than 80 per cent of the child workforce comes from families with six to 10 members, with just over 15 per cent from families of 11 to 15 members. Furthermore, over 61 per cent of parents of child labourers are illiterate. The major reason for child labour is poverty.
“Poverty is the major reason for child labour in Kashmir which is witnessing drastic rise,” said Professor B. A. Dabla sociologist at the University of Kashmir.
He added that the shawl industry was a particularly ravenous employer of children, especially young girls, whose small hands are useful for the intricate work of shawl embroidery.
Dabla, who recently conducted a study on the living conditions of child labourers in Kashmir, said that their surroundings were “filthy, with no proper drinking water or even lavatories”.
He said that many of these children suffer from myopia, migraines and neck problems, as well as being susceptible to a wide range of diseases.
Shreef Ahmad from Save the Children said that though the organisation has not conducted any recent study on child labourers, their number is rising.
He hinted at the prevalence of human trafficking as well, though he denied having evidence.
Another sociologist, Professor Bilal Ahmad Bhat added that child labour exists in different parts of the Valley, a system of usury, in which the debtor or his descendents or his dependents have to work for the creditor without reasonable wages or with no wages in order to extinguish the debt.
“The system implies the infringement of the basic human right and destruction of the dignity of human labour. These innocent souls remain unaware about the legal dimensions of this menace due to the discrimination and exploitation they are facing through red hands,” Bhat said.
While the Department of Labour and Employment says it is doing its best to fight child labour, the defunct child labour act speaks for itself. During the year 2009-2010 only 50 offenders were prosecuted, of which only one was fined.