Overcoming Child Bonded Labour: Sneha lives her dream

A chirpy, cheerful twelve-year-old dressed in a white salwar suit, sat cross legged on a chair, her wavy and windblown hair held together with a ribbon. When she smiled, I couldn’t help but smile along with her. It was so joyous, child-like and genuine. As we started to have a conversation, she told me about her journey.

Her parents, Vijay and Poongavanam, had initially borrowed an advance of Rs. 15, 000 for her father’s medical treatment from a brick kiln owner. Along with her parents and younger siblings Chinnathai and Muthukumar, Sneha had moved into the brick kiln. She was not even four.

The family worked round the clock to repay the advance. Young as she was, Sneha was asked to spray sand over the kalam so her parents could mould the bricks on the kalam.

As she grew older, the owner added more work. Now she had to fetch water and carry it from a tank to the place where they prepared the clay to make bricks. She then had to clean the kalam, fold the big tarpaulin sheets used to cover the kalam, arrange the bricks so as to let them dry out evenly and at times help shave the bricks to make it a perfect cut.

At the brick kiln, their owner would wake her father Viji and her mother Poongavanam at 03:00 am every morning. Sneha too would wake up along with them and she would help her parents as much as she could. When she was too sleepy, she would sleep beside them on the kalam as they worked, oblivious to the pain caused by the hard bricks.

Whenever the owner saw little Sneha sleeping near the kalam, he would shout at her father to wake her up and make her work. He would order the children, including Sneha to fill the vessels with water. It broke her father’s heart to see his little girl covered in dirt and mud from head to toe, drowsily working her way to carry the water pot.

When she turned five, her father enrolled her in a government school near the kiln. Sneha was very happy that she could now go to school. Studying, eating, playing with other children, it was almost as if she had her childhood back. For the few hours that she was at school, she could forget the bleak reality of her life and live out her dreams. Her dream lasted only for two weeks though. The owner went to the school and brought her back to work, telling her parents that only if the children worked along with their parents, would their workload reduce and their production increase.

Her father begged the owner to allow her to go to school. He said that the owner’s children went to a private school in a bus, but he was only asking him to allow her to go and attend the government school that was nearby where she got free education. However, the owner shouted at him saying that there was no use of the Irular children studying. After all, what could they learn or achieve in life?

Sneha detested staying at the kalam and having to work. She thought longingly of her two weeks in school and longed for an education that would support her later on in life. If she was ever caught playing, the owner would thrash her with a stick. If her parents dared to intervene, he would yell at them.

In 2015 however, Sneha’s dreams became true. She was rescued by the Vellore District Administration. Today, she is studying in sixth standard.

“The best part of my life is that I now go to school and also get to speak in English,” she says. “I dream of becoming a doctor one day and I hope it does not end with being just a dream. I want to serve my community by treating children. Right now in my village, a lot of children suffer from dengue and I want to grow up and treat many who suffer with various ailments.” She says, “I am so happy that now I get to do what I never could do. I can run, chase, hop, skip, play as much as I want and there is no one who can stop me from doing it anymore.”

“I love the fact that I can actually study well. I stand second in my class in all the tests and exams and my favourite subjects are Math and Tamil.”

She ran at a recent Kiddathon event hosted by Decathlon in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Chennai to raise awareness about child bonded labourers. She said, “I often pinch myself to believe that I am living my dream.”

Today she says that if she studies well, the life in bondage will only be a bad dream that has to be forgotten for she now has a beautiful, bigger, better, brighter, bolder and more blissful dream to dream and achieve.