An Open Letter to Chhotu, Munna and Bachcha

An Open Letter to Chhotu, Munna and Bachcha

Dear Chhotu, Munna and Bachha, 

How are you? 

Do you remember me from the last time, when we met at the tea stall, at a ration shop, at the road side hotel? And yes, also in the nearby dumping yard, in a motor garage, at the bus stop, railway station, and also at your homes.

Do you remember what you were doing when we met? I am sure you do because you do this work on a regular basis. In fact, daily. You were serving tea, giving rations, washing plates, picking garbage, fitting the wheels, begging in the trains and yes, taking care of younger brothers and sisters at your home.  

You know, November 14 was Children’s Day. We are celebrating Child Rights Week between November 14 and 20. Do you know that these days are about you? But where are all of you? 

I understand, this day, this week is not that important to any of you. Before people could have started celebrating these days and weeks, your work would have begun. 

I once tried to list down all the work that you did. My page was full but there was still so much more to jot down. At the end of it I was left groping in the dark for answers to questions that surround all of you- how do all of you do this work? Why do you do this work?  

I saw Chhotu that morning. He had a big plastic bag on his back, and an iron rod in his hand. I saw him near the dumping yard. His bag was filled with plastic bottles, polythene and other waste materials. I called out to him and chatted with him for a few minutes. We talked about his work. I was amazed by the details that he shared with me. He explained how he collected waste- different collection methods for different waste, how he segregated and sold them. 

The next day, I saw a child in my neighbourhood. At first glance, he looked like Chhotu. After all, both of them had bags with them. But that is where the similarity ended. His bag had books and he went to school. The same school which was close to the dumping ground where Chhotu went with his bag. For Chhotu, the dumping ground was his world. For the kid from the neighbourhood, the school opened a whole new world for him. Every day brought a new prospect for both of them. Just that their prospects were disparate.

Every day I come across some of you. Some I can interact with, some I cannot. The question remains - Why do you all do it? Why don’t you all go to school? Why don’t you play, ride a cycle, go for a picnic? Why don’t you do things that the kid in my neighbourhood does?

But do you know you are not the only one who does this kind of work? There are many more. According to government statistics, over 8.2 million children between 5 to 14 years of age are engaged in different labour activities across the country. Even though education is now a right, 6 million children are still out of school. The government schools are failing to attract children and retain them. Nearly, 92% of government elementary schools do not comply with all the norms of the Right to Education Act. The government has introduced a new Act to ban child labour but that is not foolproof either. 

But not all statistics are bad. They say anaemia has reduced, number of children engaged in labour activities (like all of you) has come down, immunisation has increased, fewer children are dropping out, so on and so forth. Do you understand these figures? Do these figures make any difference to you when you pick the garbage, wash the plates, or beg at the railway stations and bus stops? Do these figures matter to you?

You don’t need to say it but I know you - none of you - enjoy the work you are doing now. You want to take a bath, wear clean clothes, fill your bag with books, go to school, read, write and explore. You want to ride a bicycle, walk with a balloon in your hand, fly kites, go for a picnic, enjoy good food, and sleep peacefully. You want to do all of those things that the kid in my neighbourhood does – enjoy your childhood.   

I am not sure when these dreams will come true and when the ‘good days’ will usher in for you. But I am sure change will come about and I am hopeful about that.

Until then, 

With love and hope (and crossed fingers).


Written by Jitendra Rath, who leads Oxfam India's education programme in Odisha.




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