Child labor is a pair of words used, quite often, rather flippantly without an understanding of the true magnitude of the situation. It is something we are all familiar with, and yet something we know nothing about. Currently, there are estimated to be 152 million child laborers around the world, which almost equates to the population of Russia in 2018.
My school offers a citizenship program. In this program, every class picks a problem that really bothers them and attempts to make a difference in the situation. In the fifth grade, as we were all discovering our freedom as pre-teens, we decided to explore a problem that took this freedom away – child labor.
We began making posters and spreading awareness about the issue. But our teachers quickly realized that we didn’t truly understand what child labour was actually like. They saw a gap between what we were identifying as solutions (they were superficial) and what could actually be done to change the situation. Hence, the next day, it was announced that the class would be going on the “The Agarbatti Experience.”
In India, the majority of child laborers work in fields or in fireworks factories or roll incense sticks. The Agarbatti (“incense stick”) Experience was an attempt at replicating conditions of child laborers who roll incense sticks. We had to sit in a cramped, dark tent for around six hours, rolling agarbattis without much space to move. We had to “earn” water, a toilet break, and even food by rolling a preset amount of incense sticks. Even then, by the time you managed to somehow roll a certain amount of incense sticks, a very short break was allowed and the food was just semi-dry chapattis and onion with salt.
Our parents knew what was going to happen at school, and they did agree to let us go ahead with this experience. I think our parents believed that the experience would do a lot to shift our “privileged” mindsets. Some children had asthma, and though they chose to sit through the experience, they always had the option of stepping out.
Truth be told, the first day, I was very excited. The entire idea of not having classes the entire day, and instead, rolling clay (I figured rolling incense sticks would be like that) appealed to me a lot. Sadly, my excitement quickly fizzled when I found it extremely difficult to roll even one proper incense stick. Our teachers were harsh to us – they told us we had to ensure a certain quality of incense sticks for them to even be counted. The first day, I was unable to roll more than thirty incense sticks and could only earn a glass of water.
I went home, took a long bath to get the incense stick clay off my hands, ate some food, and slept. I could feel the clay on my hands, even though I had washed them thoroughly. My legs were entirely cramped due to the small space in which we had to sit. I was not looking forward to the next day, and yet, I was determined to do better and earn my food. I realize that a similar determination, but with a much greater magnitude due to their having no other alternative, spurs child laborers to submit to such harsh conditions – just to earn some money, so they can feed their families.
The next day, I was more prepared. I knew the technique and I was determined, so somehow, I managed to roll 350 incense sticks – just enough to earn my food.
I remember rolling my 350th incense stick and feeling extremely irritated when the supervisor shouted at me to wait until they could come and count them. It took forever, and my stomach was already preparing itself for the food. My knee was cramped and standing up was painful, but so was the hunger. I carefully placed my incense sticks out in the sun and went to stand in line for the food. When asked how many chapatis I wanted, my friend advised me to take as many as were being given, because we never knew if we would get more.
I have always been a picky eater, fussing about how much or what kind of food I have been given. However, I wolfed down the three chapattis and onions like it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
That moment, after I finished my last chapatti and licked the salt off my fingers, I understood the true magnitude of what our teachers were trying to show us. I suddenly felt like someone who got lucky – lucky enough to have my parents buy my clothes, feed me, even send me to school, while children all over the world could only dream of such a life, or even a simpler one.
It is said that childhood is the happiest phase of anyone’s life, but I cannot imagine having to work in even harsher conditions, just to put food on the table. Articles regarding child labor have become so common that they seem hardly worth a glance. Though rectifying the situation may seem out of reach, we can do more than ignore it; purchasing things from ethically sourced brands and spreading awareness about this problem would go a long way (or at least a step further than just looking away).
However, what we experienced was less harsh.Most child laborers in India work in firework factories, and lethal accidents are a very common occurrence. These children are often injured in accidents or fall severely ill due to exposure to chemicals. Of course, we can never experience such a situation, where children risk their lives purely out of desperation. The class decided to sell our incense sticks in order to raise funds for NGOs trying to resolve this problem. That experience was life-changing, and I doubt anyone involved will ever forget it.
The experience made me realize the enormous privileges I have, and how I am being empowered by all this knowledge to go on and empower others. I realized that my education is not just a necessity in order to be successful but to connect me to the world – and enable me to be the change I want to see in the world.
Raavee is a 15-year-old currently studying at Rishi Valley School in Bangalore, India. She spends eight months at Rishi Valley, playing football and basketball and reading. In her spare time she also studies a bit. The remaining four months, when at home, she catches up with the world both online and offline, and spends her time writing, watching Netflix, and pestering her parents and sibling.
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