Madrassas are the cornerpiece of Muslim community life. In a disturbing twist, some of them are being used as transit shelters for child trafficking. Or worse, doubling up as sweatshops themselves.Â Neha DixitÂ reports
IN SHAKURPURÂ Basti, a teeming Muslim-dominated, working class neighbourhood in North Delhi, there is a four-storey building with a mosque on the ground floor. This is the Darul Ujloom Nizamia Ghausul Uloom Madrassa. On the face of it, there is nothing to set this madrassa apart from an estimated 35,000 madrassas in the country. But unknown to the community, the Darul Ujloom madrassa is subverting its foundational pact with both Allah and his followers.
In many ways, madrassas are a corner-piece in Islamic community life. They are seminaries where children go for religious education, and in poor neighbourhoods, for non-formal schooling. Most madrassas in India are affiliated either to the Deobandi, Barelvi or Ahl-i-Hadith sects and are funded by zakat â the compassionate Islamic practice of people donating 2.5 percent of their income to support hospitals, charities or Islamic schools. Zakat donated to madrassas is meant to pay for maulvisâ salaries and free meals, clothing, books and lodging for children.
In keeping with this tradition, the Darul Ujloom Madrassa, set up in 1992 by three maulvis of the Barelvi sect, is supposed to house 150 poor Muslim children and provide them with shelter, education and food. Far from doing this though, in a disturbing twist, TEHELKA found that the Darul Ujloom Madrassa was illegally sending its minor children out to work harrowing twelve hour shifts at nearby factories and sweatshops.
This is the symptomatic story of one such child. Ten-year-old Anees is the son of a daily wage labourer in the Purnea district of Bihar. Bihar has the highest number of Muslims in the country after Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. According to the 2001 census, 87 percent of Muslims in the state live in rural areas, of which 49 percent fall below the poverty line. On an average, two out of every three Muslim households in rural Bihar send at least one child away for better prospects. Aneesâ father was no different. His daily income of 50 was barely enough to provide three meals a day to a family of eight. So one day, when a man called âChachuâ came to him and suggested that his eldest son should be sent to a madrassa in Delhi where he could become a Hafiz Quran â someone who has memorised the entire Holy Book â the father readily agreed.
(Unfortunately, âChachuâ is commonplace jargon in the world of child-trafficking. Posing as kindly well-wishers, relatives and strangers often lure children away from parents with false promises, earning Rs. 2,000 âRs. 5,000 commission for every child they trap. PM Nairâs NHRC report Trafficking in Women and Children in India, in fact, says 53.5 percent of child workers are coerced into it by their relatives or acquaintances.)
Tipped off by activists, the TEHELKA reporter posed as a Lucknow-based NGO that funds vocational training, to gain entry into the madrassa. This is what Anees said on our spycam.
ANEES:Â âChachu said once I become a Hafiz Quran, I can get a job of an Imam in any mosque for a salary of 5,000.â
TEHELKA:Â At what time do the classes take place?
ANEES:Â Morning. Eight to 10.
TEHELKA:Â Only two hours?
ANEES:Â Yes. After that I go to work.
TEHELKA:Â Where do you work?
ANEES:Â Britannia biscuit factory.
(TEHELKA has not authenticated this claim independently.)
TEHELKA:Â What work do you do there?
ANEES:Â I am part of the packing team.
TEHELKA:Â What are your work timings?
ANEES:Â From 2 pm to 10 pm.
TEHELKA:Â How much money do you get?
TEHELKA:Â For how long have you been working?
ANEES:Â Four months.
TEHELKA:Â Do you have an I-card?
TEHELKA:Â Do your parents know about this?
When we ask Anees what he does with the money he earns, the maulvis tell him to leave the room. We ask permission to walk around. The madrassa is a warren of tiny rooms strung together like train compartments. The childrenâs luggage is stacked up, leaving little spare space. While some rooms are open, most are locked. Like little Anees, most of the children are obviously away at work. Aneesâ own 2 pm shift is approaching.
THE STARKÂ and appalling story of child labour is not a new one. In November 2009, TEHELKA had published a wideranging story on child trafficking and labour (Pimped, Abandoned, Sold). But like in a report we published a month ago, The Half Life of a Coal Child â where we described the medieval horror of children working in the rat mines of Meghalaya â this story unearths a new and dark narrative of child labour that should serve as a timely wake-up call for the community. It is a narrative that speaks of children repeatedly lured away from disenfranchised parents in the name of religion and pushed into hellish chutes of hard work, little food and â mostly â no pay.
As yet, the TEHELKA investigation itself is a slim one. Though we spent several months on it, our story covers only five madrassas in Delhi and it is difficult to gauge how rampant the phenomenon is. Getting access to madrassas is not easy and, according to an estimate by the Human Resource and Education ministry, there are about 1.5 million children enrolled in the 35,000 madarassas in the country. Just Delhi has 5,000 madrassas and that does not include the ones that are unregistered.
Back at the Darul Ujloom madrassa, the maulvis â Asrar A Kadri and Naseem Azhai â are surprisingly open about the fact that the children entrusted to them are sent out to work and readily hand us papers detailing their place of employment. At a surface level, this attitude seems driven by a habitual cynicism born out of Indiaâs staggering poverty. There is also the greed for possible funding from the NGO we are posing as. Hereâs how Maulvi Naseem Azhai sees it:
TEHELKA:Â We want to know if students of your madrassa work somewhere.
NASEEM:Â See, poor parents cannot afford their childrenâs expenses.Thereâs no harm if the children work a bit and earn some money.
TEHELKA:Â So what time do the classes take place?
NASEEM:Â From 8 am to 11.30 am. But for children who go to work, we let them off at 10 am.
TEHELKA:Â Where do they work?
NASEEM:Â Zari factory, cold storage, garment factory, mobile shops and others.
TEHELKA:Â Are the places they work at close by?
NASEEM:Â Yes. They are across the road in Shakurpur village.
TEHELKA:Â Are all the expenses of the kids borne by the madrassa?
NASEEM:Â Yes. All expenses for food, lodging and education are on us.
TEHELKA:Â How many meals are the children provided?
NASEEM:Â We canât say about those who go to work. We provide meals to only those who stay back.
TEHELKA:Â What is the strength of the madrassa?
TEHELKA:Â Out of this, how many do not work?
NASEEM:Â Only 30.
By sending the children to sweatshops, the madrassa saves Rs 78,000 monthly. There is no one to audit what the maulvis do with the money
Unwittingly, Maulvi Naseemâs answers are a dead giveaway. While TEHELKA could find no evidence of either maulvi directly benefiting from the commercial outlets where their wards are employed, both Kadri and Naseem talk about the costs of running the establishment. Three meals a day per child is around Rs. 600 a month, they say. âBut,â says Naseem, âwe always tell their employers to provide them their meals.â Just a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that if 120 out of 150 children go to work and are fed outside, there is a monthly saving of Rs 78,000 for the madrassa. There is no one to audit what the maulvis do with that saving.
Food â or the absence of it â is perhaps the most heart-breaking aspect of the story. Like Anees, Mohammad Kallan is an 11-year-old boy living in the Darul Ujloom madrassa. He works a punishing 9 am to 9pm shift in a garment factory in Shakurpur village. Kallan says he stitches jeans âjismein Akshay Kumar ki photo aati haiâ ( jeans endorsed by actor Akshay Kumar). Though TEHELKA could not independently corroborate whether these were fakes or genuine, it seems from Kallanâs assertion that he works in a factory that supplies Spykar jeans. Kallan boasts disarmingly that, after two years of work, he can now stitch pockets on ten pairs of jeans in an hour.
Contrary to Maulvi Naseemâs cold argument, however, that itâs okay if poor kids work to earn, Kallan has never been paid. âItâs okay,â he says, âI am just a trainee. From next year they have said they will pay me Rs 1,200 per month.â His innocence is searing.
Kallan was taken from his widowed mother in Madhepura in 2008 by a Jehangir Chachu and delivered to the Darul Ujloom madrassa. Sent out to work by the maulvis, along with 25 other boys his age, the understanding is that the âsethâ â the manager of the sweatshop â would provide them food twice a day. At night when they finish their shift, Kallan says they get a small portion of meat and two chapatis. In the morning though, shockingly, having left the madrassa on an empty stomach, they arrive at their work stations to get a cup of tea and two slices of bread plastered with Iodex â an anti inflammatory balm not meant for human consumption. Apparently, the hungry boys have acquired a liking for the taste. âIt burns in the stomach for some time then becomes thanda (cool) in the mouth,â says Kallan. (How much more cynical can the capitalist chain get: Iodex has a high chloroform content and, if consumed, represses the central nervous system and, to state the obvious, is lethal for the kidney. Consuming the Iodex every day drugs the children and helps them work mechanically with a kind of robotic efficiency.)
Mohammad Akmal , 9, works in a madrassa that doubles as a sweatshop. He prepares 100 bindi packets a day. He has not been home for two years
Employing young children as apprentices or trainees without registering them is a common practice in the unorganised sector â saving the cost of adult labour â but is illegal as per the Apprenticeship Act. Understandably, the factory owners where the boys work are far less forthcoming than the maulvis. Despite several guises, the TEHELKA reporter could not gain entry into the factory â turned away each time by hostile guards.