In May 2018, Maniram, a labour contractor in Gogunda in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district put eight underage boys on a bus. He told them he was taking them on an outing to a spot nearby. But after they had been travelling for an hour, he announced that he was actually taking them to work in Rajkot in neighbouring Gujarat for two months. He promised that they would be paid Rs 5,000 a month for eight hours of work each day.

The boys were split into groups and sent to Rajkot, Morbi and Tarapur. They were held captive, overworked, underpaid and abused.

“We worked in restaurants, making chapatis, chopping vegetables and washing dishes,” said Jaggu, one of the eight boys. “Our first employer was very rude and aggressive. He took away our phones and our ID cards and did not allow us to call home either.”

After three months, Jaggu and his friend Rajaram, who was from the same village, fled the abuse. “A truck driver gave us a lift till Udaipur,” Jaggu said. It took them five days to get home to their village of Ambava, which is 26 km from Gogunda. “My parents were relieved when we reached home,” Jaggu said.

With the help of the Gogunda support centre of Aajeevika Bureau, the migrants rights organisation for which I work, the other boys were rescued and Maniram, the contractor, was caught. Jaggu added: “None of us have been paid for working till date.”

Frequent abductions

Jaggu and the seven boys who went with him, are among the fortunate ones who got home. Bondage and trafficking of children is amongst the most prevalent organised crimes in India. Child trafficking is singularly accountable for the abduction and disappearance of over 40,000 children each year. According to a 2019 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, one child disappears every 10 minutes.

The magnitude of this criminal activity reflects not just inadequate law enforcement but systemic failures in education and welfare that increase vulnerability and facilitate trafficking among rural populations, especially children.

The rural education situation in Rajasthan is grim. In rural Udaipur, the dropout rate for male students between the ages 6 to 17 years is 14.3% – just over twice that of the state average of 6.8%, according to the Rajasthan fact sheet under the 2011-’12 Annual Health Survey of the Census.

The same document shows that the proportion of children between 5 to 14 years engaged in work for rural Udaipur is at 6%, once again above the state average of 3.9 %.

The 2012-’13 survey shows a slight reduction in the dropout rate for rural Udaipur at 11.8%, while children aged 5 to 14 engaged in work for that year was at 7%, almost double the state average (2.9%). As per both these surveys, Udaipur had the highest dropout rate of any district in the state.

The low number of schools available is another huge cause for concern. A report compiled by TISS Mumbai in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the status of secondary education in Rajasthan, showcases rural Udaipur to have had only 825 schools built between 2011 and 2015.

These statistics confirm that shortage of schools, high dropout rates and large number of children engaged in work are serious problems.

Negative attitudes

For now, Jaggu does not plan to get back to his studies.

“I dropped out of school because it was boring,” he said. “I never paid attention in class. The classrooms were unkempt and filthy. Sometimes the teacher did not show up, and when he did, he would hit some of the students.”

Cities, he said, are full of opportunities. “I admit, what happened with us was wrong,” Jaggu said. “That does not mean that I will not go back to the city to work.”

He explained: “One must be smart in the city. This is what I have learnt. The village is for simpletons. I would go for a thousand trips to the city in search of work than go back to school.”

For others, moving to the city is more a matter of compulsion. Rajaram, the boy who escaped with Jaggu, is not as fascinated with the idea of life in the city. Nor is he repelled by the stench of the classroom walls. But he has no choice.

“I do not see school as an option.” said Rajaram. “My father is a drunk, he never works. I am the oldest of all my siblings in the family. My father had previously borrowed a large sum of money to expense his alcohol; I have to pay it back somehow or see my father jailed. Would I like to go to school and get a good job? Sure, I would. In a different life maybe!

The story of Jaggu and his companions illustrates how India’s welfare system has failed to protect the most vulnerable, so much so that they would rather risk being entrapped than being empowered.

For the purpose of safeguarding the identities of those interviewed for this research, all names have been changed

Anhad Imaan works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that provides support to seasonal migrant labourers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.