Living in a decently-sized middle class apartment block in Murugeshpalya, Bangalore, we get to hear a lot of gossip (mostly conducted in Hindi, which is good practice for me). However a couple of weeks ago we got to create some of our own. On the floor below us lives a woman, Mrs Paul, and her two children. We noticed about a month ago that there was a young girl, shabbily dressed and dirty, living in the apartment with them. We assumed, correctly as it turned out, that this girl was employed as their servant. This is not an uncommon situation in India, where many children are orphans or from very poor families who cannot provide for them. Service in a good home is far superior to begging in the streets or manual labour and is generally considered acceptable so long as the children are taken care of and sent to school, although it is more usual for adults or whole families to be employed as servants.
Rani, my girlfriend, began chatting to this young urchin, whose name (she discovered) is Anita. At first, she claimed that Mrs Paul was her mother. We knew this to be untrue, since the woman's other two children are pampered and extremely well-dressed. After a week of regular visits to chat to Rani, Anita was ready to tell the truth. It turns out that she is a nine year old girl from Arunachal Pradesh, a state over 1000 miles away from Bangalore as the crow flies. She had gone to visit her uncle in the summer holidays, and he had sent her against her will to Bangalore to work as a servant in his colleague's family home without the knowledge or consent of her parents. In the flat downstairs, she is made to get up at four am every morning, clean the house, water the plants, polish the shoes, prepare breakfast, and cook packed lunches for the children to take to school. She carries their lunch to the bus stop with the children, and returns with groceries (one neighbour reported seeing her carry a 10kg bag of rice). She cooks dinner, standing on a stool to reach the stove, does the washing up, washes all the clothes, cleans Mrs Paul's brother's home downstairs, and goes to bed at 11pm at night.
What really forced us to take action though is the fact that she is fed on scraps of rotten food and beaten regularly by the woman and her teenage son. Indeed, you can see clearly in the accompanying picture marks on her face caused by the woman digging her nails into Anita's cheek. Upon hearing this, Rani contacted local NGOs in Bangalore that deal with child labour. They gave her the number of the police commissioner's child helpline. Rani called and arranged for Anita to be taken away that day (August 10). After several more calls, the police came and rescued her. The next day, we went to the Police Commissioner's office to visit Anita. We found her safe and well, and even better, clean and with new clothes. Since she is Christian, she had been placed in a children's refuge run by nuns.
The child helpline has an office in the Police Commissioner's compound run by a no-nonsense woman called Dr Sujathra. She had called our neighbour in for questioning. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Paul had claimed that Anita was a relative who she was keeping at home because her immediate family was very poor. When this story failed to convince anyone, she was forced to tell the truth, but still denied that she had mistreated Anita, or that she had done anything wrong. At this point we returned to the UK on a long-planned trip to see our family. Upon returning, we went to find out what had become of Anita.
Twice a week the Bangalore Child Welfare Committee (CWC), appointed by Karnataka State and invested with the power of magistrates, meets to decide the fate of all children who are being kept by the State under the powers of the Juvenile Justice Act (2000). Anita was brought before the CWC the Monday after we left, and had been moved to the Government Home for Girls. We met the head of the CWC, Neena Naik, who turned out to be an exceptionally sharp, decisive woman with a dry sense of humour and the slightly unnerving ability to discern in seconds the character and motives of everyone around her. When we came in, she was dealing with a young girl who had been left with some neighbours and beaten black and blue by them with a belt. Her father had come to take her home, but Neena was delaying the paperwork in order to make him realise the seriousness of what he had done. A rag-tag bunch of young girls and boys played in the corner, and upon seeing us a couple of them came over for a chat.
Rakesh was a ten year old boy from Delhi who had been picked up that day from Bangalore train station. He was a smart, funny kid, but was addicted to correction fluid. Rakesh ran away from an abusive family who were too poor to take care of him. His thirteen year old friend had run away from Assam for similar reasons, and had been working for several years in a garment factory in Bangalore. Desperate to go back home, he was waiting in the Government home - but we were told his parents weren't in a position to take care of him and so he would remain here. The two kids joked about the food and the conditions in the boys' home, and Rakesh put on my bike helmet. Finally we got to see Anita, who was again sanguine and cheerful, and had made some friends in the girls' home.
Neena said that Anita would be kept in the girls' home pending her uncle coming to give a statement. Once they had located her parents, they would arrange for some female police officers to come from Arunachal Pradesh and take Anita home (Bangalore has very few woman police officers). Meanwhile the conditions in the girls' home are relatively poor, despite a fantastic and committed staff. The girls wear tattered uniforms and look miserable, which is unsurprising given that there is little schooling (and that often not in a language they understand), many of them are far from home, and some have been rescued from horrific backgrounds including sexual abuse. They need a refrigerator, a water purifier, a flour grinder, medicines, and some clothes for the girls to wear on festival days. Anita also told us there is no soap for them to wash with. We're trying to raise some cash to get these things for the 100 or so girls between the ages of six and eighteen who live in the home.
The latest update on Anita is that her uncle came to give a statement to the CWC. He claimed that her mother died young and her father is mad, that he is her sole guardian, and that he wanted to take her home. Anita, who was sitting opposite him when he gave this statement, replied that this was not true, and the CWC concurred. He returned to Arunachal Pradesh empty-handed, leaving behind a new servant, aged around sixteen, that he had brought for Mrs Paul. Due to an outbreak of tuberculosis in the girls' home, Anita has been sent to a local NGO where she is attending school (although unfortunately the lessons are not in any language she understands), and which provides better food and living conditions. The police in Arunachal Pradesh have been given as much information as Anita knows about her parents' location, and are trying to find them. Meanwhile she will stay here until such time as her parents are found, or she gets sent to an NGO in her native Arunachal Pradesh.