Amom Arte says he is 20 years old but looks puny for his age as he scrubs the grimy table in a snacks shop on LB Road in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai. Originally from Mizoram, he came to the city with his older brother a few months ago, after the latter was promised a job by an IT company.

Amom is among thousands of children and youth who have come to Chennai to find a livelihood.

After arriving in Chennai, Amom’s brother found that he was one of many graduates from the North-east who had been lured here only to be cheated. He now works in the food court at Ascendas IT Park in Taramani.

Boys like these are migrants who come to the city, sometimes with their parents, with big dreams but receive “stepfatherly treatment” from the government, according to R. Vidya Sagar, a child protection specialist with the UNICEF.

Vidya Sagar said that while child labour on the whole had shown a decline in the state in the last five years, the decrease has been slow among migrants.

Most of the migrant labourers who pour into the city hail from Odisha, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and the North-east. While many children end up working in the informal sector, particularly the hotel industry, and earn around Rs 1000 per month, many work in brick kilns and rice factories.

“In the brick-making industry, contractors hire units, not individuals,” said Vidya Sagar. “Every unit is made up of a man, his wife and a child who dry the finished bricks.”

Sometimes, children also work in construction sites.

Manojeet, 15, is from Siliguri, West Bengal, and came to Chennai some months ago with his 30-year- old cousin. He works at a construction site in Velachery where a fire broke out recently, destroying many of the transit homes of the labourers.

Manojeet used to go to school when he was back home, but now gets to earn Rs 250 a day, most of which he sends home.

However, officials at the Tamil Nadu Labour Office say that child labour is a biggest issue among localites, not migrants as “most of them leave their families at home”.

“Child labour among migrants is almost zero in and around Chennai,” said P. Karuppusamy, the Additional Labour Commissioner. “Out-of-school children are a different issue.”

According to Karuppusamy, 22,000 inspections were held across the state to look into child welfare in 2011 and 13,000 children in the 6-14 years age category were found to be out of school across the state.

Surveys by NGOs show a different picture. A report in The New Indian Express dated February 18 said that according to Kancheepuram-based Rural Development Trust, there were over 8,000 migrant children across Greater Chennai alone, many of whom were reported to be working.

Karuppusamy however rubbished this claim, saying that NGOs tend to blow up numbers to get more funds.

(Lakshmi studied Mass Comm and Journalism at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Kavita is a B.Tech. graduate from Uttarakhand Technical University, Dehra Dun. Both are students of ACJ, Chennai.)

(This article was published on April 7, 2013)
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