Ganesh Puja is a time for festivities, but for some kids near the Khairatabad Puja pandal, it is a cruel trick of fate.
On a sunny afternoon, near the tall idol of Ganesh at Khairatabad, is a child painted in silver with spectacles and dhoti sitting on a torn blanket. The boy may not be more than eight and could barely speak as passersby threw coins on the cloth on which he was sitting. Around him, is an air of carnival as worshippers push and shove, some gape at him, some don't even give him a second glance and move on. The boy painted in silver varnish is not the only one on the road leading to the Khairatabad idol - there are more waiting at other spots.
Thirst above all The serpentine queues push and jostle towards the enormous towering idol at the pandal. And quite naturally, after crossing the rail track of Khairatabad, the first thing that catches people's eye is the child in silver paint. These small children, aged between seven and 10, are made to sit for hours in the sun. And in the evening, as the footfalls rise, they even 'perform' for the 'demanding' crowd.
When we speak, the boy barely manages to mumble, "I sit from 8.30 in the morning till 6 in the evening. The paint tastes bitter when it enters my mouth."
He is not supposed to move as his job is to sit still and catch the attention of the festival revelers. Some people sit near him, some poke him, touch him, to see if he's real and treat him like a festival toy.
He does not go to school and comes to the pandal every morning with his grandmother. He says, "My body burns all the time. I get to eat only after it is dark." When we hand him a drink, the thirsty child immediately grabs it and gulps it down till the last drop. Ironically, there are several traffic cops posted there to manage the crowd, but they appear to have more pressing things at hand. When questioned, they shrug and move away.
An amusement toy?
A troupe of 15-16 such children is forced into begging and performing when the puja time comes. Reason? More people, more money! The little boy's grandmother in a South Bihar accent says, "We do it once a year. We have to earn our living. We are poor labourers." She confesses that she herself paints the child. "It takes almost an hour. But I wipe the paint off with the pallu of my sari," she adds.
Malati, a hawker selling cheap plastic flowers, says, "You should see them early in the morning when they come with all their children. Some of them are then sent to Necklace Road and others to Lower Tank Bund." Many such children can be seen begging and performing at different places all the year round. Ratheesh, who is a tea vendor, informs, "The paint that these people procure is mostly from factories. Of course, they are not going to buy dabbawalla paint!"
Dr Subha Dharamana, a cosmetic dermatologist, warns, "Harmful substances present in such paints can be toxic. There can be mercury, zinc and lead present that can cause severe damage in a small child. The child can even get cancer or tumour if the paint goes inside his body."
Sudarshan, one of the organisers of the Khairatabad Ganesh Puja Utsav Committee says, "These people come on their own. We have nothing to do with it." There is little hope of the plight getting better. Amal Raja, team member of Child Welfare Committee (CWC) says, "When we get to hear about these children we send our team and rescue them. The persons involved are liable to be punished."