– Manasi Rege
“Chhotu! Wash the dishes!” Motabhai bellowed from the cash counter. “End of the day,” he thought to himself as he sat at the counter of the restaurant that he had been running for the past 20 years. Chetan, fondly known as Chhotu, had been a price catch, whom he had hired last year. The 12-year-old boy could work like a whirlwind. The whole staff had taken a liking for this boy who did all odd jobs for this place. His parents had been more than happy to let him work on knowing the ‘handsome amount’ that Motabhai would pay him which meant, the family could at least afford a decent meal every day.
The restaurant was empty barring the two men and a plump little boy at a table at the far end of the room. Motabhai recognized one of them as Advocate Shah. He was known to fight for child rights and Motabhai had always wondered what that was. “Do kids also have property disputes?” he thought to himself. “Or worse, divorce and alimony matters,” he giggled.
In the quiet of the night, he could hear their conversation. “I am fighting a case of child labour, day after tomorrow,” Advocate Shah was saying. “You know, child labour has been on a decline over the past one decade, but people still hire children illegally for work.” Motabhai’s heart skipped a beat. Advocate Shah continued, “according to Article 24, no child below the age of 14 shall be employed to work in any factory or in any hazardous employment. As per article 39(f), childhood and youth are to be protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment. In the world’s poorest countries, around 1 in 4 children are engaged in child labour. Even today, India has about 4 million children engaged in it. Also, the Rights of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009, makes it mandatory for children between 6 to 14 years to take free and compulsory education. And wow! What a coincidence! Today is 30th April, National Anti- Child Labour Day.”
“And honestly, Mukund,” Advocate Shah addressed his friend, “would you like your Rohan to be picking up bricks or washing dishes in some hotel, when it is his age to study and play?” Motabhai’s eyes fell on the young boy who was about 12 or 13 years old. The boy was a bit plump and deeply engrossed in gobbling up a burger. “Of course not,” Mukund laughed, “I find the concept of child labour absolutely ridiculous. I just wish, these heartless employers would close their eyes for a minute for reminiscing their own childhood memories, so that they would at least know what they are stealing from, and depriving these kids of, is far beyond the profits that hiring these kids would fetch them. They are simply retarding the future generation of the country for their selfish short-term gains.”
Suddenly Motabhai’s eyes fell on Chhotu gazing through the slit of the door, at the plump Rohan, and he recognized it as a look of longing. Longing for education, longing for relaxation, for a decent meal, for decent lifestyle. And Motabhai felt a wave of grief wash over him.
The next morning, Chhotu approached Motabhai, “Chacha, how many dozens of eggs should I buy?” “No, my son. You should ask, how many dozens of books should you be buying,” he replied, and having said this, he produced a sparkling new school uniform and a bag as he witnessed that priceless expression on Chhotu’s face go from confused to overjoyed. With a small tear in his eye as he saw Chhotu emerge out, dressed in the uniform, he said to him, “This is for that day when you will open your own restaurant,” and led him to the waiting school bus.