“ My father sleeps in the house or he fights with my mother after drinking alcohol. He says that his factory has been closed during Covid. They don’t have any work. Mummy is asking them to find another job. He goes in the morning and comes in the evening. Says, he could not find a job. We sell balloons that mother gives us after filling air. Then we get some food to eat”.
This is a testimony from Neha, who sells balloons on the streets of Bhopal, the capital of MP. She sells balloons every evening from 6 pm to 10 pm at the Board Office intersection. She is not alone, her sister Khushboo also does the same thing along with her. Neha is 5 years old and Khushboo is 7 years old. There are many intersections in Bhopal city, where children like Neha-Khushboo do this kind of work these days to help their families survive.
Neha says that she sells balloons worth Rs 50-60 every day, Khubshu also gets the same amount. Sometimes this earning goes up to Rs 100, which she gives to her mother. Her mother buys wheat, rice, pulses, oil in the house with this money, then makes food for the household.
Both children do this work when the signals are red at the intersections and the vehicles are parked. Children selling goods of different kinds are visible at almost all major intersections in the city. After the Covid epidemic, such children are appearing in greater numbers.
6-year-old Chhotu, who wanders around in the Kushi Nagar Express running between Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Maharashtra to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh gets money and food items through begging and gives it to his mother sitting near the train toilet. Then he gets some portion from it to eat. He is not aware of his father’s name or place of residence.
He says that his mother makes him do this work. He cleans the berths of the people in the train coach, removes the garbage around the berth and asks for some money in return. Some people give and some shoo him away.
When we tried to talk to Chotu’s mother, she started cursing her husband. She said that he is not getting any work or does not want to do it since the Covid epidemic started. He and his friends keep playing cards in the locality all day, come home in the evening and ask for food. If there is no ration at home, then he quarrels and gets upset.
“Some people of my locality make their living by begging in trains like this, so I have also left the house. I go home once a week’ says Chotu’s mother.
She says she tried to find work before begging on the train but found no work. She went for a few days to cook food in a house, but the landlord’s wife said that ‘your living style and dress are not good. You don’t even make the food tasty, so just clean the utensils for which you will get 40 rupees per day’.
“40 rupees was too little so I have to beg under compulsion. Sometimes I get 90 rupees and sometimes up to 150 rupees a day. Some train passengers give me food too and that is how we survive” she says.
This trend of begging or selling toys was already there at the traffic intersections and on trains coming to the city. However, there is no doubt this has increased since Covid started two years ago and is much more visible now. Many who have lost their jobs in this period and entire families are leading a nomadic life.
Experts consider this matter to be worrying. Deepesh Kumar Singh, an expert in child rights and child labour laws, says that while the children are in fact begging their activity does not come under the legal category of begging because they also provide a service to the person paying them in return. In fact this is a way of getting money out of the pockets of others by keeping the children in front and playing with the emotions of others. The phenomenon also does not come under the category of child labour because the parents support them and the work they do is also not heavy.
Meera Singh, a consultant on child protection affairs, considers society responsible for this, directly and indirectly. As the level of knowledge of the parents of the children is low, it is natural that they are also financially weak. Otherwise they would not have pushed the children on the road like this. Or they may be compelled not to get work, for which they have made children a medium.
According to her parents of these children should be given work. If they are used to not working then they can be counselled. If this responsibility is not being taken up socially, then the government departments that are responsible for this should take initiative. If the parents are not getting work at the private level, then the administration should become the medium. Only when the parents start working, that the life of these children will improve. By begging like this entire childhoods will be ruined.
Recently, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has also expressed concern about such children. On May 19, he has given a message to the general public through his official Twitter account that if there is a child who is begging at any bus stand, on the road or at the railway station, it is a matter of shame for everyone.
His message said that such children should be going to school and it is the responsibility of the district collectors to immediately arrange for their shelter, the cost of their education, the cost of their food, the cost of their clothes, the cost of their books.
“We have no shortage of funds for such works. Let’s all take a pledge, adopt an Anganwadi, get rid of malnutrition for the children coming in it. I have also adopted an Anganwadi, that is why I am saying. No child will be allowed to live on the street, even if he has run away from home. We will make complete arrangements for them” he said.
After this message from the CM, the local administration in all the districts is showing some concern about the children working and begging on the roads in MP. Child welfare committees has also come up. There is greater awareness about the problem in the state’s social departments. The work of identifying the children has started.
But the basic problem of providing employment to the parents of such children has not been taken up. It is natural that after some time parents will exploit their children to earn again.
Pooja Yadav is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal