Children who should be in school and are entitled to free education under the Right to Education (RTE) act are doing hard labour across the country.

A survey carried out by as many as 19,000-odd children in 882 villages in four districts of Gujarat – Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Surendranagar and Sabarkantha – has brought to the fore the adversities being faced by 9,897 child labourers between six and eighteen years of age.

Of the total, 1,782 are between six and ten years of age. These children are mostly engaged as child labourers in agricultural fields while some take the cattle for grazing.

The survey was carried out by Save the Children and Child Rights for Change, a network of eight partner organizations.

‘We decided to divide the 19,000 children in committees comprising eight kids each and carry out a survey on child labour. The aim was to sensitize the children towards issues that are keeping their peers out of school,’ said Rajan Mohanty, state programme manager of Save the Children.

‘It’s not surprising that of the total number of children engaged in child labour, most are girls. It is unfortunate that hundreds of young girls are forced to drop out of schools to look after their siblings as both parents go to earn a living,’ said Mohanty.

The children who conducted the survey learnt about the problems faced by child labourers. A majority of child labourers said that they suffered excruciating pain in the back because of the arduous work, and over a 100 of them said they suffered because they inhaled smoke.

Although the revelation comes from the state of Gujarat, the scene seems to be almost the same across the country.

In 2006, Vilasrao Deshmukh, then chief minister of Maharashtra, had said that by 2010 the state would be free of all forms of child labour. The confident claim had been put before the Bombay high court in an affidavit in 2008 in a PIL against child labour.

However, on November 13, a day before Children’s Day, Maharashtra state government’s labour secretary Kavita Gupta said that ridding the state of child labour would be impossible unless the influx of minors trafficked from other states was plugged.

‘When we free one child, thousands of others pour in to take his place. Until this aspect is dealt with, child labour will continue,’ Gupta warned. She added that child trafficking from Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Nepal and Bangladesh was still rampant.

Farida Lambay, member of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) and director of Nirmala Niketan, said that the government’s far-fetched plan had failed to curb child labour practices in the unorganized sector.

‘Even today, children are either sweating in the heat of stone quarries or working in the field sixteen hours a day. In cities they are picking rags, or are hidden away as domestic servants,’ said Lambay.