"Alok...mera bachha...(my child)... lift...supervisor," Manju Devi, 32, repeated these words in loop as she sat outside her house in Metro Vihar in outer north Delhi's Bawana district on Monday, 13 February afternoon.
A day ago her son, 14-year-old Alok, was crushed to death after he got trapped inside a lift shaft at a cooler factory in Bawana. "They trapped my son in the lift and killed him," alleged Manju, as she cradled her two-year-old daughter in her lap.
An FIR under sections pertaining culpable homicide not amounting to murder and negligent conduct with respect to machinery has been filed at the Narela Industrial Area police station. The factory supervisor has been arrested, said DCP (Outer North) Ravi Kumar.
A class eight student, Alok was one of Manju and Ramesh's five children.
"On days he didn't feel like going to school, Alok accompanied me to work. There, he took care of his sister while I was busy," Manju told The Quint. She also alleged that Arvind -- the supervisor -- had in the past asked Alok to work at the factory. "Around three days ago, he said that working at the factory will help Alok earn some easy money," she said.
A factory worker and an eyewitness of the incident, on condition of anonymity, told The Quint that despite his mother's reluctance, the supervisor often made Alok work at the factory site. "On Sunday, Alok was sent to operate the lift. It is a task that requires expertise and training. How can you send a 14-year-old to operate the lift?" asked the eyewitness.
The police has also added multiple sections of the Juvenile Justice Act and the Child Labour Act in the FIR. The owner of the factory is yet to join the investigation as "he's out of town" said DCP Kumar.
Alok is not the only casaulty of lax implementation of labour laws, including those pertaining to minors, across industrial areas of Delhi, especially Bawana. The Quint spoke to multiple factory workers in the Bawana Industrial Area — a micro and small-scale manufacturers' hub — about the perils of the job, safety concerns, pay disparity, and child labour.
What Happened on 12 February?
On Sunday, Manju, who started working at a cooler manufacturing factory in Bawana less than two weeks ago, left home for work with her son Alok and two-year-old daughter Ishita.
"Once I began work, I told Alok to take care of his sister. Around 1 pm, I went to the toilet and when I returned, I saw some workers rushing to the first floor. It was my son, he was dead," she said.
An eyewitness told The Quint that while Manju was away, the supervisor roped in Alok to operated the make-shift, wooden lift. "'Chhotu jao, lift chalao,' is what the operator told Alok to do. It's an old wooden lift which operates with a pulley. The operator's job is to pull the roller wires in the grinder box. Alok was not trained at all. He opened the box and as he tried to pull the wires but got trapped in the shaft instead," the eyewitness claimed.
It was at 2 pm -- after an hour -- that Alok's body was retrieved from the shaft by factory workers present there. The eyewitness told The Quint, "The supervisor had called the police and the ambulance too but by the time they all arives, the workers had altready taken out the body from the shaft." He was taken to Satyawadi Raja Harish Chandra hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.
Meanwhile, Manju had rushed home and informed her neighbours about the incident. "She was in shock. What she was speaking didn't make sense. We sat her down and then she told us what had happened. We called the boy's father who works in Noida and then called the police too," said Randeep Kumar, who lives near the family's rented two-room house in Metro Vihar.
Ramesh, Alok's father, works as a halwai at a sweet shop in Noida.
"My husband earns around Rs 15,000 a month and that's not enough for a family of six. I thought it would help us financially if I too start working at a factory. If I had the slightest idea that I will end up losing my only son, I would have never gone to that factory," lamented Manju.
The Rampant Violation of Labour Laws
Grief and anger shrouded the family's rented home on Monday as his body was brought back after post-mortem. Alok's purple school bag, his uniform, and an old, framed photo of the child with his mother and one sibling adorned the walls of a room. His siblings sat in a corner as relatives and neighbours reached home, and took turns to console their mother.
Meanwhile, in the lane, many alleged that factories in the area often asked for "children" to be employed, in a bid to save money by paying them less. Kamla Thakur, 29, a neighbour, recalled how last week she was denied work at a factory because the supervisor only wanted "young girls" for the job. "They often tell us that only 15-year-old boys and girls are required for a certain job. Baccho se aisa kya kaam karwaoge jo humse nahi karwa sakte (What work do they want children to do that an adult can't?)" asked Thakur.
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits the engagement of children in certain employments. The legislation regulates the conditions of work of children in certain industries. Article 24 of the Indian Constitution also prohibits the employment of children in factories. It says, "No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment."
Pradeep Kumar, who is Manju's neighbour and was at the factory at the time of the accident, said, "I went to the factory to ask for work that day but after what I saw, I don't have the courage to return to that place."
He alleged that factory owners "employ children because they get to save a few thousand rupees." Pradeep said, "If Manju was earning Rs 6,000 a month for an eight-hour shift, Alok would have got just Rs 2,500 for the same work. It's a win-win situation for factory owners."
Yogesh Swami, convener of the Karawal Nagar Mazdoor Union, claimed it's no secret that children are being employed at factories across Delhi. "Orphans or children from low-income families are the easiest targets for factory owners. The labour department is aware of the situation. Children are employed as helpers and then made to work. They work overtime and are paid less," he alleged.
Bharat, a member of the Bawana Industrial Workers Union, claimed that most unauthorised factories in the area heavily rely on children for their day-to-day activities. "You can easily spot children between aged 10-15 years working at these factories. They earn Rs 5,000-6,000 a month. Labour laws exist only on paper," claimed Bharat.
A String of Similar Tragedies
Meanwhile, in the lane, Alok's death reminded many of similar incidents that had shaken up entire families in the past. As 26-year-old Hemlata, who lives close to Manju's house, watched the family trying to cope with the death of Alok, she remembered her own brother Sandeep who had died in a similar tragedy 15 years ago.
"My brother would have been 15-16-year-old at that time. He was employed at a paint factory when he fell into a grinder tank. His body was so disfigured that we couldn't even identify him at first," said Hemlata, as she fought back tears. She claimed thather family has not received any compensation yet as the case is still pending in court.
"We hear about such instances on a daily basis. Ironically, when my mother, who is her 40s, goes to factory sites to look for work, she is told to sit at home and send younger people. We never received any help or compensation. I hope this family does."
For Rajesh, who works at a factory in Bawana, the incident brought back memories of the unfortunate 2018 cracker factory fire, which killed 17 people, including 10 women. "Aapko yaad hoga kaise bohot saare workers patakho ki factory mein jalkar marr gaye thay? (You must remember how workers died in the cracker factory in 2018?) That also happened in Bawana. Even though their families were compensated, nothing has changed as far as the working conditions are concerned," said Rajesh.
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