True Story Self Employment

Pravin Vaghani(Photo by Unusha)
Pravin Vaghani(Photo by Unusha)

Self Employed Child

Breakfast at Railway Station

The pleasing smell of freshly fried Ganthia and Jalebi hit my nostrils as I followed the coolie onto the platform of the Dadar (in Mumbai) railway station, one early morning. The coolie led me to the first class waiting room. He placed my light-weight suitcase near an empty chair, showed his shiny, well polished brass badge no.194, said he will come back when the train arrives, and then disappeared.

I went out, bought some Ganthia and Jalebi, ‘The times of India’ newspaper, and settled down on the sofa-like chair to wait for the arrival of the Saurashtra Express, the morning express train available for my destination Ahmedabad.

A Shoe Polisher

I had barely finished glancing at the headlines in search of an article to read, when I felt a tug at my feet. Lowering the newspaper, I saw an eight-nine year age boy dressed in a short and a shirt, with a dirty looking small bag in one hand and a shoe-polish brush in the other. His clothes must have been white originally but now looked more like smoky gray and were covered with black and brown smudges of shoe-polish. He said that he was hungry and that he would like to polish my shoes to earn money to buy food.

Strongly Against Child-Labour

Being strongly against child-labour of any kind and thinking that this boy should be at school being educated, I refused to have my shoes polished. I almost thought of finding his parents and lecturing them on the benefits of education. For the time being, however, I offered the boy the irresistible freshly made Ganthia and Jalebi to satisfy his hunger, adding that, for this he need not polish my shoes.

Not Accepting Any Alms

He was taken aback. He vigorously shook his head; said he was forbidden by his parents to take any alms. He was looking for honest work to earn money. He further explained that in any case I will have to pay him less for shoe-polish than what the Ganthia and Jalebi must have cost !

Dilemna of a Thousand Questions

I was in a dilemma. Thousands of questions crowded in my mind. Who was this boy ? Who is responsible for his well-being ? Who has given him this ideal of not begging and working with honesty ? Where will he get the food if I refused ? Where does he stand in the socio-economic reforms of the society ? Who decides at what age one must assume the responsibilities of life ? Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Miniuster after independence, decreed that every child must be in school upto the age of 14. But he had not envisaged the amount of corruption and resulting poverty that will befall upon this country. Each question, each thought was trying to push forward to show its importance.

Self-employed Child

A major question also came in mind. ‘What is Child Labour?’. If you employ a child and pay him small wages that will be considered ‘child employment’. But here the child is ‘self-employed’. He has chosen this method of earning his living. He may be an orphan or his parents may be too poor to provide him enough food. I have heard about children who work like this ‘self-employed’ during the day and then study at night.

Rumbling Hungry Tummy

The boy’s anxious eyes were steadfastly looking at mine, his little fingers clutching at the dirty bag and the shoe-brush tossing and tumbling in one hand, as if his little eyes were trying to convey the message that a similar number of questions are tossing and turning in his rumbling hungry tummy, all of which may vanish by my one answer ‘yes’.

Finally Shoes Polished

Instead of trying to find answers to my umpteen number of questions, reluctantly, I agreed to his request. His little round black eyes shown like a thousand globes. He polished the shoes with great enthusiasm. I paid him ten rupees which he clutched in his hand and went away looking happy.

The Headlines

I turned to the inside page of ‘The Times’. A headline glared at me, ‘Six hundred graduates queue for the job of a peon’.

The Train Arrived

I heard the pounding of the wheels of the Saurashtra Express on the metal tracks. The coolie no.194 reappeared. He rearranged his red-turban, placed my suitcase on his head, picked up my briefcase and signaled me to follow him.

The Coolie and The Boy

While paying, I looked at him and asked, ‘How long have you been working here ?’

At first he hesitated, then did some calculation in his mind, and said, ‘I started on this platform as a shoe-polish boy at the age of eight; later on I got the job of a coolie and got this brass badge no. 194.’

He took a deep breadth, thought for a moment, then as if reading my mind, added, ‘the boy who polished your shoes is my son.’

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