In June, I wrote an article documenting this family’s daily life in the impoverished eastern state of Bihar. E-mails started to pour in the next morning. One was from a record producer in Los Angeles. He grew up in modest circumstances, and told me that he saw himself in Meena. He offered to pay all three children’s education and living expenses until they turned 18, an amount equal to $1,200 per year.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Why, then, did the children’s relatives refuse to let them take it?
Unlike the other scruffy village children, Meena made an effort to stay presentable. She was soft-spoken and polite; she slicked down her bob with spit and kept her face clean. Perhaps this adult inclination was a natural extension of her adult responsibilities.
I’d been introduced to Meena by Mokhtarul Haque, an activist with India’s Save the Childhood Movement, known by its Hindi abbreviation BBA. The BBA has rescued and rehabilitated trafficked children for over 25 years. Mr Haque had met with Meena’s only surviving relative, her aunt Savitri Devi Manjhi, soon after Meena’s mother died in 2009, and Mrs Manjhi had then urged Mr Haque to place the children in a government foster home. In June, following the record producer’s proposal, Mr Haque offered the children spots in a BBA school.
The BBA built its own schools partly in response to the sorry state of government foster homes, where corporal punishment is routine and abuse is common. I’ve met many children who attempted to run away, preferring to take their chances on the street. But after initially accepting Mr Haque’s offer, the Manjhis quickly changed their minds, insisting they were capable of looking after the children.
Never mind that Meena and Sunil were perpetually hungry and slept without even a piece of cloth to separate their bodies from the hut’s dirt floor. Or that the Manjhis trafficked him at age 11 into a dangerous brick kiln soon after his mother died. (In India, children under 14 are permitted to work, but not in hazardous environments.)
The Manjhis are the product of intergenerational poverty and caste-based marginalisation. Like their parents, they’re poor, illiterate and seasonally employed. They don’t think beyond their daily survival. They’re also aware that no matter how bad life gets for them, public assistance is unlikely, and change is an impossible dream. They know they have no one to depend on but themselves and their younger kin. They may have empathy for their niece and nephews, but they can’t afford to act on it.
In a society with few effective regulatory institutions, there’s neither an incentive to take responsibility nor repercussions for not doing so. People don’t do the right thing because it’s easy not to, and there’s no reward for doing it. Villagers are preoccupied with their own daily survival. And it’s easier for bureaucrats to do nothing.
A lack of accountability not only kills motivation, it encourages outright malfeasance. In India’s poorest districts, easily bribed police officers enable trafficking. India, according to Unicef, now has more child labourers under 14 than any other country.
What’s most galling about this corrupt behaviour is the fact that the current government is making an unprecedented effort to confront poverty. In 2011, according to a World Bank report, India spent over 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on poverty alleviation. Over the past 11 years, India’s government has sought to provide free midday school meals, a guarantee of 100 days of employment annually to the rural poor and free primary education. But endemic corruption, from the very top down to the ground level, prevents them from being implemented effectively. A lack of transparency and a leakage of subsidies to the nonpoor means that poverty isn’t falling nearly as fast as it should be.
The free hot meal is the reason Meena goes to school. But her teachers routinely skip school, three days a week. When teachers don’t come, the school stays shut, and there’s no meal. A well-funded, well-intentioned program created to educate and feed poor children fails on both counts: Meena not only learns nothing, she also goes hungry.
But it’s the Manjhis’ choices that have had the greatest impact on Meena. And these, too, were influenced by government failings. The low-caste residents of Meena’s village work the land of their upper-caste neighbours, who pay them in grain. To earn cash, entire families find supplemental work in one of the state’s many brick kilns, but they don’t earn enough to feed themselves adequately.
The government’s Public Distribution System, which offers subsidised food and fuel, should cover them. But in 2011 less than 10 per cent of the grain intended for Bihar’s poor actually reached them. The rest was sold on the black market, bought by wealthier people with fake food ration cards or, worst of all, sold at a markup to the very people meant to receive discounted grain.
Government inefficiency has left the Manjhis poor and hungry, so they have taken control of 14-year-old Anil’s earnings. His salary of less than a $1 a day is paltry even by Indian standards. But for the Manjhis, it was still too much to risk losing. And so they refused to let Anil and his siblings leave for school. Unless their economic lot improves, the Manjhis will keep sending him to work at the brick kiln. Sunil will most likely soon join him.
A worse fate awaits Meena. Traffickers masquerading as eligible grooms routinely trick poor families into parting with their daughters, often before puberty. The families succumb because there’s no demand for dowry or wedding expenses. New brides are whisked away and sold into bonded labor or to brothels, where they’re raped into submission. They almost never return home.
There are thousands of Meenas in Bihar and millions of Meenas in India. Individuals, nonprofits and charities can’t be expected to step in to save them all from tragedy.
India’s deafening aspirations to ‘global power’ will never be realised if the potential of these millions of children continues to be squandered.
The government must move beyond merely developing ambitious policies - it must also ensure that these policies aren’t corrupted. There must be stern reprisals for graft and dereliction of duty. And it must be worthwhile for poor people to do the right thing; they should be rewarded for good behaviour. Prosecution of child-labour traffickers and their henchmen must be accelerated. And India needs to overhaul its system of state-run foster homes so that children don’t avoid them out of fear.
Only if real change occurs at the top will those at the bottom accept a stake in their community’s future. As long as Mrs Manjhi is hungry, she’ll do everything in her power to stay alive - including sending her younger relatives to work. But if she were to receive real support from the government, that wasn’t funnelled away by corrupt middlemen, she would not need to send Anil to work, and she would be likely to resist the temptation to earn extra cash illegally, for fear of losing state benefits.
Meena and her brothers now have a firm offer to live at a good school. This should be their happy ending. But it isn’t. If a child who has so many people fighting on her behalf can’t be assured justice, the millions of other children with no such allies have little hope.
The good will of 1,000 record producers in Los Angeles won’t change that. Only the Indian government can. –NY Times