A trap for hapless children

For Prasanth, 14, of Inigo Nagar, work usually starts at 1 a.m. when he is woken up. “Sometimes, it takes two to three people to wake me up,” he says. But he likes what he does. “Going to the sea is a lot of fun,” he says without the slightest hint of Rs. 2 lakh debt bondage.

His parents had borrowed the money from a fibreglass boat owner a few months ago for his sister’s wedding. The loans are interest-free. However, there’s a catch: they can’t leave the owner until it is paid back. His father and other siblings have also borrowed from different lenders, and he does not even remember how much his family owes. “It should be around some six to seven lakh,” he recalls. He contributes a chunk of his earning to paying off these loans.

“By the time all loans are over, I would be married and live with children,” he says. When asked what would happen if he chose to work elsewhere, Prasanth says that would lead to problems. “The
committee would force me to work with the same boat owner,” he says.

But some other children in a similar situation do not think it is difficult to repay their loans as the amount they owe is less. Joseph, 14, does not think his debt of Rs. 70,000, a loan taken by his mother, is a big deal. “Some other boat owner may bail me out if I want to switch boats,” he says, “My mother invests in chit funds, which might come in handy.”

A lot of other children at Inigo Nagar, who owe anywhere from a few thousands to lakhs of rupees to boat owners, are in debt bondage. It is difficult to measure the prevalence of this phenomenon across this district. “Even if anything like this exists, they won’t tell us,” says a teacher at a Special Training Centre (STC) run by the Tamil Nadu Multipurpose Social Service Society (TMSSS) at Noorthammalpuram. STCs are special schools for children who are rescued from child labour before they are absorbed in regular schools.

President of Indian Council for Child Welfare – Tamil Nadu Andal Damodaran says that such a practice amounts to bonded labour. “Children who go fishing experience a great amount of freedom, and it is very difficult to bring them back to classrooms. Schools should be made interesting for them; counselling should be given to those who drop out,” she says.

Another teacher says that debt bondage has come down among children over the years. “Despite some SHGs offering credit to people, this practice is very much there,” she says. There are 315 children including 135 girls attending 10 STCs in the district.

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