Dig to Survive

Realities of Dalit Children in the Mining World of Rajasthan, India

The child of a mineworker
Mineworkers’ children are often trapped in a vicious cycle of labour and debt

“I want to study further.”

Sitting at the edge of a charpoy (local bed) made of wood and rope, Kaveri speaks with a hope that only exists in the eye of the young. “I studied til fifth standard,” she excitedly adds, pointing in the direction of Adarsh Khan Majdur (AKJ), a school established by GRAVIS in Bheelon ki Basti, Kaliberi. This rural area is located in the drought-stricken state of Rajasthan, 240 kilometers away from Jodhpur city. Sandstone and marble miners have formed a colony in the village, and GRAVIS created the school to educate their children.

“But my father wouldn’t let me go.” She exchanges glances with her father coyly.

“If she goes to school then it would affect our income. I barely earn enough to cover household expenditures and we also have to save for her dowry,” her father, Bhim Raj, suffering from silicosis, replies peevishly as he takes last bite of chapati, picking chili powder off his plate.

The village surrounds the pink and red landscapes of sandstone mines, where hundreds of men and women are involved in the extraction of sandstone in unsafe conditions from sedimentary rock quarries. Miners work tirelessly in scorching heat in deep open pits. The air is thick with silica sand dust as a result of dry drilling using hand chisels and hammers.

Working in sandstone mines is one of the most prevalent realities of many Dalit communities in Rajasthan, yet little is known about the issue, and it poses a hazardous risk for both children and adults.

According to the latest Indian Census, 95 percent of mine workers in Rajasthan are Dalits, of which 37 percent are women and 15 percent are children. Dalit Children as young as five working in the mines are not an uncommon sight here. They are often unpaid workers and work in acutely unsafe conditions, potentially developing silicosis by breathing in silica sand dust. Rajasthan produces 10 percent of the sandstone in the world and 70 percent of the sandstone in India. It is estimated that roughly one million children in India work in stone quarries.

Kaveri’s parents started carrying her to the mines a few days after she was born due to the absence of child-care facilities. Kaveri, now eleven, wakes up at the crack of the dawn to finish domestic work, collect firewood and fetch water in a 5-litre vessel from the tap installed for villagers outside the AKJ school, where water is available every alternate day. Hundreds of people including young children rush to queue up in an area where habitations have mushroomed as a result of availability of work in the mines.

At the mine site, Kaveri helps her mother, Sumitra, fill a lorry truck with stones each day so she can collect 50 rupees. Workers can collect their daily wages only if they have filled the entire truck, and since Sumitra is physically weak, she cannot accomplish this task by herself.

“I know that children should study but we dig to survive. This is what my parents and grandparents did,” says Sumitra looking at the enormity of the task ahead.

According to Mr. Rahul Mishra, Programme Coordinator at GRAVIS, “Children assist their parents to complete the work. Parents see prospects of children multiplying the family income to get rid of bonded labour and see little value in their children getting education. ”

Factors that restrict the education of children in Kaliberi are absenteeism, economic commitments, gender inequity, availability of schools and motivation, but more often children don’t attend school because they help their parents in the mines. The root causes are acute poverty, lack of child-care facilities and bonded labour.

Under bonded labour, the debts are passed on to the next generation further leading to generational poverty—a vicious cycle with little or no escape for children like Kaveri. She can only break the cycle of bonded labour after reaching puberty and having an arranged marriage. However, this does not mean that her work would cease; she would end up having more domestic responsibility and bearing children.

Sandstone mines are one of the worst forms of labour for children in particular. Both adults and children work for over 70 hours a week to pay off loans taken by miners’ ancestors for basic necessities, medical expenses, weddings and funerals. The bonded labour arrangement keeps wages low.

Those who are employed as bonded labourers are predominantly Dalit.

Mine owners strategically seize the future of children belonging to Dalit communities. These children often suffer from unprovoked violent attacks, especially young girls who are also at risk for sexual harassment.

Mine owners take advantage of children accompanying their parents in the mines by offering them little pay for tasks such as clearing small rocks and picking stones off the ground behind the pickup trucks.

When asked why these children did not attend school, the mine supervisor, Hukam Singh, who is operating an unregulated quarry, argued, “Parents do not have enough means to send their children to school and education is only free for one month.” Yet this information is untrue. School education in India is free for children aged six to fourteen under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009.

The majority of mines are unregulated in Rajasthan, posing a threat to miners’ lives. Many families in Kaliberi have at least one male member suffering from silicosis who often dies without receiving any treatment.

The Rajasthan High Court ordered closure of 474 mines a few years ago. However, the court order was on paper only.

Worldwide, over 260 million people’s human rights are violated based on their caste background. Right violations include physical, emotional, mental and sexual violence and segregation in housing, schools and access to public services. According to government statistics, nearly 167 million Indians are in the so-called Scheduled Castes, which are the groups that go through these heart wrenching and repulsive experiences.

Dalit miners in Rajasthan face extensive stigmatization and discrimination that prevents them from attaining full civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. They suffer routine violations of their right to life and safety. Caste-motivated killings, rapes, and other abuses are not uncommon in India and are a usual occurrence in Rajasthan’s villages.

Miners and their children are forced to work in degrading conditions. They are consistently abused by the upper-caste community members and miners who have the powers to manipulate the laws and have the protection of the State.

This entrenched discrimination that the government fails to address violates Dalits’ rights to education, health, housing, property, freedom of religion, freedom of choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law.

The question is, how do we protect and prevent children from working in such a hazardous and unsafe environment?

While GRAVIS’ initiative to educate children has provided a way forward despite the existing complexities in the village, the government of Rajasthan needs to comply with and respect international treaties that India is party to.

Dr. Ritu Mahendru

*This article is  by Dr. Ritu Mahendru, who is founder and chair of South Asian Sexual Health (SASH) Voluntary Organisation, based on the field work conducted, during summer 2012 as part of her teaching assignment at the Jodhpur School of Public Health, Jodhpur National University. The article is also available on her personal blog: http://mishtimli.wordpress.com

Follow SASH: https://www.facebook.com/pages/South-Asian-Sexual-Health-SASH-eForum/199361753417649?ref=hl

Follow Ritu on Twitter: @ritumahendru

       Email: ritu.mahendru@sash-uk.org


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