Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Childhood Cast in Stones

Akshaya Rout/Kalinga Nagar (Orissa)

“The writing on the wall is crystal clear. These children will continue to

be victims of this booming quarry sector, unless urgent measures are taken

to wean them away,” laments human rights activist Manoj Satpathy.

For them, the bliss and joys of childhood is a distant dream. Their future lies buried under debris of institutional structure touted by the government but claimed by wretched poverty, social indifference and executive complicity. Scores of children living in the villages on either side of the Paradirp-Daitary national highway are the tender hands quarrying stones.

Deprived of innocence, about 1200 children are slogging it out in about 34 quarries in Orissa’s Jajpur district and its nearby areas, digging stones holding heavy shovels and axes with their nimble fingers. Small children toiling in many quarries are a conspicuous feature in many quarries along the Daitary-Paradip national highway.

For their parents, these children have turned out money-making assets but in the eyes of the outside world they are child labourers who are being exploited. The conflict between poverty of parents and illegality in employing these children is yet to be addressed with right earnest by the authorities.

“According to conservative estimates, more than 1200 children between 10 to 16 years are working in the open quarries from which laterite stones and stone-chips are exploited. They earn from Rs 80 to Rs 100 for eight or more hours of work. Denying the joys of playing and advantages of studying, these children grow up with several respiratory problems working under unhealthy conditions,” informs Manoj Satpathy, a human rights activist.

The quarry-based industries are flourishing in this part of the state due to heavy demand of stone and stone-chips by construction units and the public for construction or roads, bridges and houses. The ongoing national highway widening works have also boosted the quarry business.

“But the writing on the wall is crystal clear- these children will continue to be victims of this booming quarry sector, unless urgent measures are taken to wean them away,” laments Mr Satpathy. The authorities in a clear nexus with quarry lease holders are not taking any action against them as a result they are exploiting child labourers in the quarry-works, said Satpathy.

“An effort was made two years back by the district administration to liberate the children from the quarry works by attracting them into vocational training schools and formal education programme. It has now started paying off as one spots a number of children attending the schools in some areas. The district administration is also planning some innovative measures that will soon be implemented for ensuring better for these children,” informs Suresh Chandra Swain, district labour officer.

But the change has to be affected at the level of poor parents. Asks 53-year-old Dharani Behera of Balichandrapur village: “Will my child get a job after finishing school? There are so many unemployed educated youths in our village, whereas my three children are at least earning some

money.” Dharani has not stopped his children from pursuing their studies. They work in the quarries before going to school in the morning and again after returning home. In this highly labour-intensive quarry industries one major problem that is assuming serious dimensions is lack of protection for child workers from heavy dust pollution. Lack of safety measures in quarries has also hit the workers hard with respiratory problems and incidence of tuberculosis, says Mayadhar Nayak, a trade union leader of Sukinda. “Many quarry contractors, without obtaining any valid license, are undertaking quarrying activities in the local hillocks. But the authority is not taking any action against them as a result the government is losing lakh of rupees of revenue. What is quite shocking is that these quarry operators lure away parents to engage their children in stone crushing. Such an alarming trend must be stemmed immediately to save the innocent children,” observes Mr Nayak.

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