The statistics on child trafficking in India are staggering. But, this is a small portrait of one person, Nazim. He was thirteen years old when his parents sold him to the overseer of a work gang on a construction site here in Mumbai in 2010. This construction site happens to be part of our apartment complex.
I first met Nazim when I saw him eating alone in the stairwell by our apartment. I would see him there everyday and we started to chat. It took three months of casual small talk before we actually communicated in any depth. As it turned out, my mother was from the same economically deprived part of India as Nazim, Uttar Pradesh. Only a few months earlier I had been talking to a police constable on the ins and outs of Mumbai life when he’d warned me about the morally low people of Uttar Pradesh or U.P as people call it here. This advice came from the same policeman who had happily taken my money to get an official piece of paperwork processed without causing “tension in the system”.
His warning is echoed throughout India, that the very poor are all criminals, all hailing from U.P. Nazim had fallen and had broken part of his jaw while welding on the 45th floor of our 50 floor complex. He always ate his lunch away from his workmates so as not to “distress” them. He eats most food with difficulty and often only has bread dipped in tea.
Nazim is typical of trafficked children in India; his environment is a product of him. He was trafficked into a society largely desensitised by such large numbers of dislocated children working on Indian streets and back alley factories.
He has forgiven his parents and purchased back his freedom. His first two years in Mumbai were spent working for free to buy back his “redemption”. He now works for a wage, albeit a pitiful one, just over 200 New Zealand dollars a month.
In the lifts of our apartment are posters asking people to report child labour. I tried this when we first moved in, shocked at routinely seeing ten year old maids. Parents in our building often hire maids as young as ten to accompany their children. When I arrived at the police station to make a complaint I was taken into an office. There I was told that if I ever came back or created a fuss that I would be arrested. I spoke to our landlady and told her what had happened. She sympathised but warned me against any rash actions as these might have consequences for my family.
We are leaving India; we have no maid, no driver or nanny. This is an anomaly in contemporary Indian life. Walking about the streets and watching the police taking bribes from motorists as they turn a blind eye to child labourers and child sex workers wears you down. Without political connections or protection you are a terrier nipping at the heels of a giant. Recording the damage left in the wake of this human wave of free market slavery is the beginning step in a long road facing modern India.
The Indian mars mission has sent back blurry photos with only a promise of real data to come in future missions. It is an illustration of contemporary India; it is far more important for things to be perceived as working rather than actually functioning.
I came across a dead child sex worker not in one of the thousands of back alleys of Mumbai. No, she lay on a main road just off the red light district, a stone’s throw from a police barricade. She represents one of the 135,000 estimated children trafficked in India each year. That statistic is no longer abstract for me, not when a girl perhaps four years older than my own daughter lays at my feet, flies already at work on her face. When I asked a street vendor for a blanket to cover her, he nervously hurried me along. He told me to leave and to forget about it, that if I covered her body the police would arrest me for her death.