The curious case of child labour, poverty and law in Nagaland - Eastern Mirror
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The curious case of child labour, poverty and law in Nagaland

By Henlly Phom Odyuo Updated: Oct 23, 2022 2:06 am
Underage boy working at a construction site in Dimapur. (EM Images)

Henlly Phom Odyuo

Dimapur, Oct. 22 (EMN): A construction site in Dimapur was abuzz with the monotonous movement of workers laboriously carrying cement, sand and gravel on their heads on a sunny day, a scene not uncommon in a town that’s bustling with activity and development. What was disturbing was a 16-year-old Nilima working at an equal pace as the adults at the site.

The teenager works as a labourer, toiling all day at construction sites with short breaks for lunch and tea, while most girls of her age are at school.

Her parents and brothers are all part of the construction industry and they work together in a group, Nilima told Eastern Mirror. She said she was not ‘pushed’ into working at such a young age but was ‘helpless’ and had to take up the job owing to the poor condition of her family.

But Nilima is not alone. Despite laws against child labour in the country, many children below 18 years of age and even below 14 are often seen working as labourers not only in the construction industry but also in other sectors.

Construction supervisors are guilty of employing underage children and exploiting them with minimum payment.

Underage boy working at a construction site in Dimapur. (EM Images)

Jasim Uddin, who is a “thekedar” or supervisor, employs two of his nephews — both underage — for construction work.

“Both of them are school dropouts and have only attended lower grade levels. They have worked with me in completing two houses in Dimapur and in Ghaspani,” he shared.

Uddin said he has become their guardian after their parents separated so he takes them along for his work. Not aware that child labour is a crime, he acknowledged that he does not check the age when he employs labourers.

As for his two nephews, he said he was worried they might get involved in unwanted activities and get themselves into trouble.

Uddin’s nephews — Anand and Tapar — said they were not interested in studying, so seeing their Abu (Uddin) work and earn, they decided to follow his footsteps when they were asked to assist him.

Underage boy working at a construction site in Dimapur. (EM Images)

They look up to their Abu and want to be thekedars in future after acquiring more skills in the industry.

This newspaper also spotted Sagar, a 10-year-old boy, working at a construction site, filtering sand. Speaking only a few words in Hindi, he shared that his parents were at his hometown in Bihar and he came with his uncle, who lives in Nagaland, to work as a construction worker. The uncle, who did not wish to disclose his name, told this newspaper that he has been in Nagaland for a couple of years, and seeing the prospect of the construction sector, he brought his nephew post the pandemic, as his family is in utter poverty.

When asked about Sagar’s education, he replied that his family needs an extra shoulder to meet their daily requirements as his other siblings are too young to work, so sending him to school was not their priority.

He also said that it is not ‘unusual’ for children to work like adults with the same working hours and sleep at the workplace, which is at the construction site.

Underage children working at a construction site in Dimapur. (EM Images)

Challenges in addressing the issue

A Labour officer pointed out that even if the department inspects the sites and industries where children are usually employed, especially at automobile workshops, it is ‘tricky’ to detain the culprits who are engaging underage children as the minors work out of poverty or are being forced by their parents’.

“There is no provision in the Labour office to detain the guilty party. Also, the explanation for the child involved in labour work is rather convincing as they are working out of poverty,” he said.

He lamented that it was also impossible for the department to check Dimapur’s nook and corner for such cases on a daily basis, as the town has a high rate of child labour because of shortage of manpower.

On the Right to Education Act, he said that many parents are still not aware of the Act, while some who are aware of it do not send their child to school so that they can ‘earn extra’.

Poverty and child labour

A Childline worker pointed out that some children are struggling to make ends meet when they should be enjoying their childhood, and this includes even Naga children.

It was revealed that Dimapur district has the highest cases of child labour, although child labour is practiced inadvertently in villages. 

“When they should be playing with their friends and be at school, some children are compelled to work out of poverty. It speaks a lot about our society and our failure to look after their welfare as a parent and government. Children are employed in hazardous conditions mostly in garages in Nagaland and the construction industry is also not spared,” Labour Inspector Lipong Longchar said. 

He also pointed out that some parents expect their children to share their responsibility as they consider it as an investment for the present and future.

It was also revealed that child labour was caused by varied factors but poverty was one of the major contributors towards this evil.

In the villages in Nagaland, young Naga children indulge in manual work such as breaking rocks with a hammer or in carpentry for a minimum wage per day.

While not many young Naga children are in the construction sector, indulging in carpentry and fabrication works are common, more so because of dropping out of school, he said. 

Naga children in the villages indulge in thatch or timber house construction, manually breaking rocks, especially during the autumn and winter seasons. Underage children usually work with a group of adults during construction of houses as a community, and therefore do not realise that they are indulging in child labour as they consider it as ‘community participation’, it was informed.

People who want cheap labour also indulge in hiring underage children, both boys and girls, and pay them less than the adults even if they work the same number of hours.

According to the labour inspector, child labour also takes place because of migration, large family, illiteracy of the parents, and lack of awareness.

When education should be an important solution to combating child labour, poverty forces them — both parents and children — to accept their situation, he said, adding that societal acceptance of child labour is another contributing factor.

Longchar went on to assert that education is the need of the hour and various laws on child labour should be enforced stringently to discourage exploitation of children.

This story is the third in a series of reports on the construction sector in Nagaland as part of the Kohima Press Club-Nagaland Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board (KPC-NBOCWWB) Media Fellowship 2022.

By Henlly Phom Odyuo Updated: Oct 23, 2022 2:06:00 am