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Withered childhood

Withered childhood
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Everyone knows that there exists a special connection between children and football. While they are the ones who enjoy playing football the most, they are ironically, the very ones exploited in the manufacturing process. It takes around one hour with painstaking effort to sew a football and in return a child labourer is paid only Rs 4. They spread happiness among other children with their skills to make sports goods but their own childhood has been lost somewhere without being noticed.

The sports goods industry of India has its roots in Sialkot, Pakistan. When India was partitioned in 1947, many of Sialkot’s skilled craftsmen migrated across the border to Punjab and settled down in Jalandhar, where the Indian sports goods industry is now based. Later sports goods industry expanded to areas of Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) and Gurgaon (Haryana). This sports goods manufacturing industry now has its reach to the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France and Australia. The factories are mostly concentrated in Jalandhar and Meerut.

Sports balls have a massive industry in Jalandhar. Millions of balls are made here every year, for scores of Indian and international brands. In some of the city’s narrow alleys, child labourers are deployed in almost every home. ‘More than one thousand children stitch balls in Jalandhar city, but the number is much more in the villages and slums on the outskirts of the city,’ said an official on the condition of anonymity. Children are being employed by manufacturers to make balls for children of the same age, pressed into backbreaking labour for little more than Rs 40-50 per day. ‘There are several reasons for companies to employ children because children work tirelessly and can be paid less than the minimum wage. Children can be easily controlled compared to adult workers,’ said Kushal Singh, chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

About 75-80 per cent soccer balls are manufactured in Jalandhar and Meerut. In stitching centres, drinking water facilities are absent. Some of them, do not have toilets. Needle piercings, muscular pains, and loss of eyesight are common health related problems among these children.

The Indian sports goods industry manufactures 318 items. However, major items that are exported are inflatable balls, hockey sticks and balls, cricket bats and balls, boxing equipment, fishing equipment, indoor games like carom and chess boards and different kinds of protective equipment. According to the government statistics, there are two crore (20 million) child labourers in India, while non-governmental agencies assert that the figure is more than 6 crore (60 million) including agricultural workers; some claim that the number could be 100 million, if one were to define all children out of school as child laborers.

Kushal Singh says that there is a need to make some relevant changes in the present child labour act which is not sufficient to protect the children. The labour department has to take some strict action against the people who employ children and exploit them with a heavy burden of work despite being below the age of 14 years. This issue has been raised several times and now an amendment is pending in Parliament. However, it has been pending for a very long time. ‘If the law changes, it will make the fight against child exploitation a little easier,’ said Kushal Singh.

A study revealed that even after 12-14 hours of work, a child can only stitch a maximum two footballs and earn at best Rs 3-5 for each, which is 40 times less than the footballs retail price. If the whole family of 6-7 members works tirelessly for these long hours they can produce only 10 footballs earning Rs 30-50 per day. If a stitch comes undone the contractors deducts the repair cost from the labourers’ wages.

The study further highlights some of the health hazards faced by the children which include finger cuts and other injuries. Thirty-five per cent still have cuts on their fingers. Another 35 per cent complain of pains in eyes, 50 per cent suffer from continuous backache and 85 per cent have regular pain in their hands and fingers. No safety measures or medical care are extended by contractors and the absence of public health system worsens the situation.

The NCPCR chairperson emphasised that missing or homeless children who were either child labourers or potential child labourers need to be sent to schools.
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