'Endemic', says Nalin Vimochan, a high ranking district officer in Bihar's Sitamarhi, when he is asked to describe the state of child labour in his district. The word is spoken somewhat gleefully, and is starkly ironical when used in an empty but spacious hall that is the office of the District Total Literacy Mission which Vimochan heads. One corner of the hall is stacked with piles of printed learning materials meant for neo-learners. These materials shall be sent to block offices from where they shall be despatched to the respective Panchayat offices, and from where the books are supposed to reach in the hands of the neo-learners.

Harijan residential school in Sitamarhi, the only one for the whole district. Pic: Rahul Ramagundam.

The office-hall is sparsely furnished and has an unkempt look. Its white walls inside are painted with digits and names in blue. The names are of those who occupy various positions in the structure of the District Literacy Mission. The figures tell their own tale, drawn out of the 2001 census, a tale of literacy rates in Sitamarhi's 17 blocks. Some of the figures are amazingly revealing. Five of the 17 administrative blocks in Sitamarhi have literacy rates of around twenty per cent, as shown by figures written on the wall. The figures, you later find out after referring to the census records, however, are about rates of female literacy in the district. The overall female literacy rate in Sitamarhi hovers around 25 per cent.

Sitamarhi is the northern-most district of Bihar bordering Nepal. It has a high rate of migration of children in search of work. All over Sitamarhi, children can be seen working in dabhas, hotels and restaurants in violation of recent statutory promulgation against such employment. (In October 2006, the central government brought a law that prohibited employment of minor children in hotels and eateries) Even the district magistrate's official compound at Dumra, the district town, with courts and other government offices in close vicinity have a massive number of children employed in its tea and refreshment shops. These shops are mostly frequented by government employees. It is an open violation of law within the compound that houses law-enforcing agencies. Sitamarhi has high out-migration of children, too.

While some twelve percent of its population belong to scheduled castes (SCs), a substantial chunk is Muslim. Some of the blocks such as Sonbarsa have a predominance of Muslims. Most Muslims, like the resource-less SCs, are themselves Dalit Muslims, a new emerging demographical category that is gradually becoming an important political construct. The migration of children is mostly from the dalit Hindu and Muslim population groups. The children are leaving their rural hamlets in hordes, and at a very early age, sometimes as early as five, to work and get skilled through a rite of passage that is as brutal as it is a dehumanizing experience.

Even the district magistrate's official compound at Dumra, the district town, with courts and other government offices in close vicinity have a massive number of children employed in its tea and refreshment shops.

 •  Dalit kids schooling hit
 •  Riots and wrongs of caste

Most of these children are employed in the urban zari industry, located mostly in Delhi, Mumbai, and even, ironically, Bangalore, India's hub of IT industries. Poverty, lack of schooling, tempting offers by unscrupulous contractors in an opportunity scarce region and a set tradition of export of the child labour along with a lax law enforcing agencies combine to make the children a commodity to be exploited. Sitamarhi is a rural district with usual skewed distribution of land that is common in Bihar. Most dalits, both Muslims and Hindus, do not have landed resources. It is also a district prone to annual flooding and for four to six months, some areas of the district remain water-logged. Most of those who own land cultivate sugarcane.

Nalin Vimochan enumerates measures that could plug the policy holes which facilitate the rampant child labour. He suggests focused programmes for economic upliftment of poorest families in regions of the district that has high instances of child migration. Second, the poor schooling system needs urgent improvement as not just quality is a problem but even now access is a big challenge. Third, there should be provisions for severe punishment against those of contractors who are caught enticing children or those who employ children in their factories. Fourth, some deterrence must also be applied against parents. Most parents become habitual in sending their children for work. Fifth, rehabilitation package for the rescued children is farcical. The administration of the district from where an illegally employed child is rescued and released by the police raid is statutorily required to give a certificate saying so, but this is seldom done. The administration packs the rescued child off to his home district under the police protection but is reluctant to give the certificate. It saves them from fining an employer to compensate the rescued child as per provisions of the law.

The official version of Vimochan is just that, a version. There are other versions too. 'The zari work does not require child labour', says Mohammad Saddam Hussain, 12, with a lightness that is indicative of his natural age. His insight, however, has the richness of an aspiring insider. 'The zari work', he says, 'is so tedious that no adult shall take it up if he is not trained early in the childhood.' In Hussain's analysis, therefore, high instances of child labour in zari workshops is not due to the poverty of families who send their young, pre-teen sons to work in the city-based zari-embroidery workshops. It is a need of the zari industry to catch up young boys in order to turn them into unresisting, submissive adult labour.

Versions apart, these children are paid meagerly and the psychological and physical scar they receive is permanent and irremediable. Most of the time they work and sleep in heaps on the floor of the workshops. They are made to work even while they suffer from fever or wounds. Due to adverse living and sedentary work conditions, they suffer from skin diseases and sometimes irreparable harm to their eyes. Their bone-joints become loose in the absence of physical activity and because of constant squatting on floor for hours together. They are India's lost children.

Maulvi offering education in a roadside Madrasa school located win a settlement. Pic: Rahul Ramagundam.

Shakila Bano 40, is the mother of one of such child. Bano has four daughters and two sons in all. Sons have grown enough to go their ways. One is working in Delhi, in zari industry. Her youngest offspring, a daughter, is yet to leave her arms. Her husband is an occasional visitor as he works to earn in Hyderabad. Just in front of her hut, on the other side of the road, is a private school that offers education in three mediums of instruction of Hindi, English and Urdu. Its signboard proclaims its convent aspiration. But none of Shakila's children have gone to any schools, contending convents or crumbling government ones. She is poor, she says. The youngest two daughters of school going age just play and she herself takes care of four goats that she nurtures.

Bano lives on a roadside hut in Bajpatti, which is a common practice in Sitamarhi. Scores of families live in thatched shelter which verges on road; the practice is more common in flood affected areas. The poor landless have no place to take refuge when floods, an annual phenomenon, come visiting. They therefore prefer roadside spaces which is almost always on raised ground. Some of the areas have roads lined with settlements. Here they have their cattle tied, children playing and schools running. This is a place where life is bred and consummated, a place where shelter and feces intermingle, and where urchin and urine get unionised in dusty waste.

Poverty is just a part of reason, mostly an excuse. More important is systematic exclusion in schooling that is mostly state sponsored in Bihar. For a district that has dalit Hindus making up twelve percent of its total population, there is just one residential Harijan school. The school itself is in dire need of renovation and upkeep. Walls are peeling off its cement coverings, buildings are caving in, the residential hostels are without windows and doors, the rooms are unlit and unventilated, and yet, some seven hundred students of various ages stay and study there. There is no dearth of poorer parents desiring their children's education but access is limited.

Take for instance, the Muslims, who, even poorer ones, send their young children to neighbouring madarsas. The one I visited was not even linked to a mosque. They exist within the settlements and it is crowded with enthusiastic children who study alif, be, pe… the Urdu alphabets. Even now, Sitamarhi, despite being the first district where the Bihar Education Project began its journey in 1992, does not have an adequate number of schools. Officially, Sitamarhi has 1466 habitations, of which only 900 have a primary school.

The most farcical display of the state's concern is within the endeavour of the Total Literacy Mission. While Chairman of the mission is a political appointee and has been given a escorted vehicle and other perks, at the grassroots level, where actually the real work is done, volunteer teachers (VT) are supposed to teach without any monetary compensation. It is no miracle that the district is burdened with 'endemic' problem of child labour.