Entangled in bonded labour along with his entire family, a six-year-old Amar Lal would often worry about his next meal. The family had to break stones at a quarry to make a living and repay debts to the local loan sharks.
Two decades and a law degree later, Lal, now 25, fights cases of trafficking and child labour in the national capital.
Lal belongs to the Banjara, a nomadic tribe with roots in Rajasthan, where his family and previous generations have worked under “powerful" men.
He remembers a time when his grandparents and parents travelled from one place to another to find work, food and shelter.
“Neither my community nor my family ever got education,” he revealed.
But Lal's life changed when Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi came to his village with a shiksha rally or education march. Lal, who was a minor, was working with his family when Satyarthi saw him.
“In 2001, we were working in a rock mine when Kaliash Satyarthi ji, whom we fondly call bhaisaab, and his wife, whom we address as mataji, were taking out a shiksha rally or education march. He saw me and stopped. There was sloganeering to stop child labour. My parents and others were a little scared, wondering what was it all about,” remembered Lal.
His parents were asked if they had forced their children into child labour, but for the family it was nothing unusual. Lal's father had seen his father work the same way, and breaking stones was a norm his children had to follow.
“He had never seen a school and as we were a banjara family, we always moved from one place to another. We never settled at one place,” Lal said.
It was all about survival, for which the family endured back-breaking physical labour.
“Kailash ji told my father that if he was not able to take care of his children’s education, there was a bal ashram (children’s home) in Jaipur and the children and our education will be taken care of. My father was a little sceptical of sending his children to Jaipur. He was told that he could come to Jaipur and see for himself how other children lived in the children’s home,” Lal shared.
When the parents saw the children’s home in Jaipur, they felt it was the right place for their children. Lal, along with his two elder brothers, started a new life. They could could play, read books and write at will.
“It was totally a new life for me,” he recalled.
Following his informal education at the children’s home for six months, Lal enrolled in a government school till he cleared his Class 12. By participating in street plays advocating child rights and singing songs for abolishing child labour, Lal found a way to spread awareness among people in villages.
“We shared our stories with the people and told them who we were and how our lives had transformed after going to school. Discrimination is a big issue in villages where girls don’t get to go to schools. So we tried to spread awareness about equality,” he said.
Lal learnt a lesson on leadership during his stay at the children’s home and believed that what he learnt as a child could be applied at a later stage in life. He also took part in elections for selecting a representative at the children's home and was elected President of the Bal Ashram Children’s Assembly many times.
As a part of his social work and association with Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Lal aims to identify villages where children don’t go to schools or where child marriage is rampant. Lal and his colleagues have been carrying out work in several villages in Jharkhand, Karnataka and Rajasthan.
The idea is to identify villages and conduct surveys to find out about the status of children’s education and child labour.
“We also try and make children choose their leader once they are enrolled in schools so that they can have meetings and discuss issues and write it down. Once a month, they can raise these issues with the gram panchayat. They can also write letters to the SDMs (sub-divisional magistrates) if they feel their issues are not being addressed by the gram panchayats,” Lal elaborated.
Awareness programmes are conducted so that children can understand their rights can bring any violation to the notice of the higher authorities.
“We often see children writing letters to the Chief Justice. So they need to know the manner in which they can exercise their rights,” Lal pointed out.
During his school days, Lal got to represent his children’s home at a child rights award function in Sweden in 2010. He was selected to be on the jury members' committee, which had selected Nelson Mandela as the recipient of the award.
“I was representing India. I spoke on inequality and child labour. Many leaders were present,” he recollected.
Some years later, right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Lal went to Netherlands for an International Labour Organisation (ILO) programme where the discussion was on the supply chain of the big companies in the world.
“All big companies have a supply chain but the products are manufactured at the grassroots level. How do you ensure at the manufacturing level there are no children engaged in child labour? You are the most powerful, but in your company, if a child is working then there is nothing more shameful than that,” declared Lal.
He argued that the administration and systems put in place at the locations of each of the companies should check and ensure that there is no child labour.
Lal was one of the speakers at the event in Netherlands, where ILO head Guy Ryder was in attendance.
“It was an amazing event. We saw a huge impact. ILO started many partnerships with many companies and in many places such as Europe it has been implemented. Companies here should also implement here. If done, a large number of children could be stopped from child labour,” he believes.
Lal, the fifth in line among his six siblings, revealed how his family was exploited in a bonded labour system.
“A contractor said he will give us work. So we went. We did not have any financial security. Because you need money, you borrow it but then you are told to keep working and paying the debt as you are poor and uneducated and don’t understand calculations and compound interests,” he explained.
The borrowed amount could never be repaid even though the family kept toiling day in, day out.
Elaborating on the hazardous nature of the labour, Lal said,
“Rocks can fall on you or your shanties where you live. Here injuries are common and medical aid is far away for the place is in a remote area. I have seen people use the chemical powder of matches and burn their wounds for a quick fix. Work starts at 7am and ends at 9pm.”
In such harsh conditions, being able to eat was more important for the family than having clothes.
“There is no consideration or care. In winter too, we just worked,” said Lal.
Habituated to the struggle, Lal was conditioned to live in hardship, especially when there was no one to tell that there could be a different life.
“We were small and huge trucks would just go past us and we just stood there looking. No one told us anything. Money was my father’s responsibility and for us, it was food. That was the life I had,” he recalled.
Some of the friends he made at the children’s home came from backgrounds that were either better or worse than his. But now, some of them are engineers, teachers and police.
“I suffered but got education. Interacted with intellectuals and thought I could also do it. Law is the way where you can fight in a proper channel. What you see in the movies that one person fights with people and fixes everything. But it is not possible in real life,” Lal said.
Lal was 8 years old when he met Satyarthi’s son, Bhuvan.
“He is also a lawyer. I was influenced to take up law after my interactions with him,” he says.
While growing up, Lal had only experienced and witnessed exploitation. His gradual shift to education made him realise that perhaps law was a medium that could help children from getting exploited.
“So I decided that I would work on child rights issues, but professionally I’d be a lawyer,” he said.
In 2013, he enrolled in a law college and graduated in 2018, following which he started practising in 2019. He practiced in Delhi’s Tis Hazari Courts for six months and then worked with Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur in the Delhi High Court for a year-and-a-half.
“Now I am involved with my organisation. So the cases dealing with children - child labour, POCSO, PILs and petitions. I am fighting for their justice,” he stressed.
Lal’s first case always reminds him of how his journey began.
“I was new and working with a lawyer. It was a minor’s rape case where the family was being pressured to close the case."
Lal and his colleague took up the case after realising that the previous lawyer had done more harm than good.
“We filed a fresh vakalatnama and application and represented the family. The accused was put back in jail,” he revealed.
Kaur called Amar an "embodiment of hope" underscoring his struggle as a boy who broke the shackles of a system that tried to bog him down and emerged victorious.
"Not just to uphold his rights, but those of others as well. Seeing him in lawyers robes everyday reminded me of what is possible for every child in India," Kaur emphasised.
For Kaur, Amar understands things about children that a lot of people perhaps never can.
"Which is why he will uphold the rights of child labour, trafficked children and other children in need of protection, not only with heart, but with soul. We are honoured to have had him in our office and I am certain he will do wonders in his professional life," she reasoned.
Lal considers himself a child rights activist besides being a lawyer and wants to work at the grass-root levels, where he says the "biggest problems lie".
“If you start working there and create awareness, it will help stop child marriages and empower people. If things improve from villages, things will only improve at the national level,” he suggested.
In a rescue operation recently, Lal came across a food manufacturing unit where minor boys and girls had been forced into labour. The team comprising local police, a child rights body and Lal, present in the capacity of a lawyer, rescued 10 children.
“We try for such cases to reach the stage of conviction,” he pointed out.
Lal often shares his life story with the rescued children and tells them how education gave him a chance at a better life.
Lal's parents have built a house on the land they own in Jodhpur. His siblings too are working.
“From my community, all children now go to school. People talk about me there, tell the children my story. I want that children form not only the Banjara community but all communities get education,” he says.
His moment of pride is when people ask his parents, “Aapka ladka dilli me vakeel hai na?” (Isn't your son a lawyer in Delhi?).
“That's most satisfying. if I am able to inspire people, there is nothing better. Everybody’s special and has a different talent. Only thing required is action. Take your action and believe you are strong,” is his message to the children.
The numbers show that people like Lal, who aim to snuff out the evil of child labour from our society, have their work cut out for them. NCRB data shows that 464 cases were registered under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act in 2018. The numbers increased to 772 in 2019 and then dropped to 476 involving 705 victims during the pandemic-hit 2020.
In the same year, over 1,900 cases under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act and 2,875 cases under Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act were pending trial in the country.