Acting on a tip-off, MiD DAY found kids between 12-15 years of age hard at work on the railway tracks between Goregaon and Jogeshwari stations
Child labour, in any form or degree, is prohibited by law in India under the Child Labour Regulation and Protection Act and the Juvenile Justice Act, which make it a punishable offence to engage any child under the age of 18 for hazardous work.
Ironically, however, child labourers are ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of the country. MiD DAY chanced upon a group of children hard at work on the railway tracks on Monday. With contractors and railway authorities racing for cover, the children miraculously disappeared from the spot the following day.
On Monday morning, Santosh Shinde, director of Balprafulta, a child rights advocacy NGO, was on his way to Elphinstone, when he spotted a few children hard at work on the railway tracks between Goregaon and Jogeshwari stations.
Shinde said, "I noticed some children working in a group of 30-40 labourers. They were cleaning the ballasts on the tracks. Just one look told me that they were all below 18 years of age. I have already dispatched emails to the national and state commissions for protection of child rights informing them of the matter, asking for a probe."
MiD DAY steps in
Learning of the incident, MiD DAY photographer Mahesh Chafe reached the location, and sure enough, there were child labourers hard at work on the fifth railway track. All of them appeared to be between 12-15 years of age.
Any attempt to trace the individual or agency responsible for the appointment proved futile. A contract supervisor, who identified himself as Jivdao Shukla, said, "The railways has given them the contract of completing ballast work between Goregaon and Vile Parle railway stations. They have been on the job for the last two months, and should complete their work over the next few weeks. They work from 8 am to 1 pm every day.
Asked why he had illegally hired children, he denied having recruited them, claiming that labourers were contracted by a different agency. Sensing trouble, he clammed up, refusing to comment further.
Predictably, when MiD DAY returned to the spot the following day, the workers -- both young and old -- were nowhere to be seen.
Who's to blame?
MiD DAY's search for the guilty party ended in failure, with experts and officials providing evasive responses.
Subash Gupta, a railway activist and former member of the National Railway Users Consultative Council said, "We have come across such complaints even in the past, wherein private contractors, to whom the railways have assigned the job, have roped in the services of children. The responsibility lies entirely with the private contractor. The railway authorities reserve the right to terminate the contract for violation of child protection rights."
Sharat Chandrayan, chief public relations officer for Western Railway told MiD DAY, "An international law bans child labour. If anybody has violated this norm, they will have to face an inquiry and subsequent action, as per the law. If such an incident has taken place, we will bring it to the notice of the concerned bodies, and initiate an inquiry."
Protected (only) by law?
The Juvenile Justice Act unequivocally mentions that any individual or agency that exercises control over a child under the age of 18, and assaults, abandons, neglects him or causes him to be assaulted, abandoned, or neglected in a manner that causes him unnecessary mental or physical suffering, will be punishable with imprisonment for a term up to six months, with or without an additional fine. It also says that any individual who procures a child for the purpose of any hazardous employment, keeps him in bondage, and withholds his earnings and uses it for his own purposes, is liable for punishment, with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, in addition to a fine.