Getting New Delhi Ready for Canada’s Commonwealth Games Team: Four-year-old Ajay

Four-year-old Ajay has been working to get New Delhi ready for the Commonwealth Games.

NEW DELHI—It’s crunch time in New Delhi and Ajay, a bright-eyed four-year-old with cropped hair and a handsome smile, is working 13-hour days to help the city get ready for the Commonwealth Games.

Every day for the past year, Ajay and his older brother Golu, who is eight, have worked alongside their parents in various gritty construction zones in the Indian capital. They leave their home in a local slum here in time to arrive at work at 7 each morning. They don’t begin to head home until 8 p.m.

While their parents do heavier manual labour for a combined $5.50 a day, their children spend days breaking up rocks and fetching water.

On Saturday, as the first Canadian athletes were leaving Toronto for India, Ajay and his brother were busy digging trenches for underground electrical cables along a stretch of highway connecting the Commonwealth Games’ athlete’s village to a rugby stadium.

Ajay’s father Pappu, a 30-year-old who arrived a few years ago in New Delhi from Kahkatwa, a small farming village the south Indian state Madhya Pradesh, said he knows his kids should be in school.

“But I’m poor and have nothing,” Pappu said, stooping to adjust a new cable laid by his children. “I have no way to pay for their school or for someone to watch them so they come and work with us.”

Throughout this city of 16 million, workers are frantically painting drywall, bleach cleaning apartment housing for some 7,000 athletes and coaches, and trying to put the finishing touches on construction projects. Officials promise everything will come together by Oct. 3, the date of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremonies. But the rush to finish on time has also highlighted a tragic side of this fast-growing country: the fact India has fumbled efforts to keep children out of the workforce.

“There is a wide acceptance of child labour,” said Shireen Miller, an official with the advocacy group Save The Children’s India-based chapter. “We see children working as domestics in people’s homes, in tea shops, in brick kilns and in construction sites. And nobody is outraged by it. Some people even think these children are being done a favour. People must see it’s no longer acceptable anymore.”

Miller said on Friday night she began to ponder how her agency might use the Commonwealth Games as a platform for drawing more attention to the highly charged issue. The United Nations estimates that there are 60 million children in India’s workforce.

On the streets outside Delhi University in north New Delhi, 14-year-old Gajendra Singh is part of a work crew that repair sidewalks and pavement outside a stadium used by athletes for training. Singh, a square-jawed teen, has been in Delhi for six months. He came here as a 13-year-old from his parents’ home in the Indian state Uttar Pradesh after an uncle called to say there was plenty of work available here.

Asked why he quit school and moved to New Delhi, Singh says simply, “the needs of the home are such.”

His parents make about $220 a year while Singh earns half that much in a single month.

To be sure, India has had laws banning children like Ajay from working in construction zones, brick kilns and stone quarries for more than 20 years and its laws are well written, child rights advocates say.

Employers of children under 14 face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees ($2,300).

But the federal and state governments here have struggled to enforce their own laws—both because child labor is helping India modernize, the country’s education system is already overtaxed and could not handle 60 million more students, and the effective bureaucracy needed to remove working children from hazardous work zones is sorely absent.

Save The Children’s Miller said attitudes here must change. Some Indians bristle at the foreign media’s coverage of the issue, instead of being outraged that their country’s laws are being flouted.

“These kids are our country’s future and if they are working from such a young age, they will not be educated and never get another job,”

Miller said. “They’ll remain in brick kilns or construction sites forever.”

It’s not as if upper-class Indians and the government aren’t aware of the issue of child labour. Three years ago, both the Indian government the giant U.S. apparel company Gap were embarrassed by reports that its clothes were being made in textile sweatshops here in India.

Children as young as 10 were working 16-hour days to embroider clothes, many of them emblazoned with the Gap’s logo. While Gap pledged it would no longer do business with contractors who used child labour, child rights advocates said the debacle did little to prompt the government to widely enforce a ban.

“As long as there is child labour here,” Miller said, “the western world will never see India as a developed country,” Miller said. “We have to wake up to that.”

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