There are hundreds of kids in railway stations working day and night as porters. Most of them do not have a fixed home and spend the night on the platforms
With all the 12 seats occupied inside, two more passengers get on the footboard of the human hauler, eponymously called a 'lagoona'. It is around 7am on a weekday – the usual office rush hour in Dhaka.
After a few minutes of the vehicle starting towards its destination, a lean, sunburnt hand makes its way through the crowd. Only the voice is heard – "Fares please."
One of the footboard passengers gets off at his stop. A gaunt appearance now becomes prominent. A kid, aged 12 at best. He is collecting fares.
When asked, he said, "My name is Noyon" in a sleepy voice.
At this hour, Noyon should have been in school, probably in the playground playing cricket or badminton before the assembly. But here he is working as a lagoona helper to support his family, the most common case of child labour in the city.
Despite various efforts, Bangladesh is having difficulties in eradicating child labour entirely. The target is to eliminate child labour by 2021, but now, it seems, time is running out to achieve the goal.
According to a report of the Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, the last time data on child labour was collected was in 2013, which shows we still have 1.7 million child labourers in Bangladesh – almost 1.3 million children being involved in hazardous jobs. As per the list of jobs categorised as hazardous by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Noyon's job is one such work.
I spotted Noyon first engaged in a serious conversation with his friend Ramjan, who is also a lagoona helper, discussing how many trip they had had so far, how hard it had become these days to get trips etc.
Talking to them it became clear that none of them had any other option but getting into a job to earn a few extra bucks for their family.
Noyon lives with his family – his father is a drug addict who beats him, his younger sister and his mother regularly for reasons unknown to him. He only knows that his mother is unable to run the family expenses by making paper bags. He has heard that his mother is going abroad soon to work as a domestic worker.
"Do I have any other choice but to manage things on my own?" says Noyon.
His friend Ramjan is from Jatrabari. His father abandoned them a few days ago, forcing his mother to move to her parents' place at Mirpur Shialbari.
Sharing rooms suddenly with uncles have not been easy for Ramjan. Since then he along with his mother and two elder brothers have been working day and night for six months to make ends meet.
Noyon and Ramjan – no matter how hard life has been for them – are kids, after all. And, like any other kid, they also show the essential kid-like behaviour.
Waking up at 6am, running to the lagoona station without breakfast to earn Tk400 at best a day, they could not stop talking about their newly dyed hair. They were laughing reminiscing how they had not handed all their earnings to their mothers and saved the money to style their hair like Salman Khan. They talked about the last episode of Motu-Patlu.
Asked if they have ever been in any accidents, Ramjan was quick to respond: "I once slipped from the footboard. Nothing much happened, though. You eventually adopt the techniques of keeping balance in there."
Both seemed annoyed at the police sergeants for often creating obstacles for the lagoon operators to have kid helpers.
Stories of kids – like Noyon and Ramjan – in other similar professions are more or less the same.
Take the case of Shakib Khan Shuvo, a worker in a welding shop. He was named after the film star Shakib Khan. His parents probably dreamed their son to become at least successful if not exactly as a film star. His father was a labourer in a brick kiln and died in an accident there.
The death of his father left Shuvo with no choice but dropping out of the fifth grade and coming to Dhaka from Lakshmipur in the hope of a better life.
The idea of a better life, however, could not get harder for him after he was hired for the welding shop. Shuvo now shares a room with seven other children in a slum of Kathalbagan, has to queue up as early as 7am for the bathroom as there is only one for all the slum residents, and has bread dipped in tea in a tea stall for breakfast. All for Tk6,000 per month.
There are hundreds of kids in railway stations working day and night as porters. Most of them do not have a fixed home and spend the night on the platforms.
Muhammad Sajal, 10, came to Dhaka from Sunamganj six months ago in search of work. He finds it easier to sleep on the platforms than paying house rent because he still has not understood how to make big money. Whenever he gets opportunity, he goes to Sunamganj to see his mother and younger sister. Sajal wants to send his sister to school.
Now, what can be done to resolve the inhumane child labour crisis? Can we pressurise the employers not to employ kids? These employers have a different take on the matter.
Sohel, owner of a welding shop, said, "Most of the kids working here are from poor families. Without this job, they cannot have meals two times a day. Sometimes the parents come to me to request to appoint their children because they cannot feed them. What would you do? With this job they can at least eat three times a day."
Executive Director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) Md Zafrul Hasan breaks down this problem into a few important branches.
"In the present socio-economic situation, many parents are illiterate and aren't aware that their children should be studying and not working. Even though education is free upto grade 8, parents do not take the advantage, moreover they think sending their child to do a hazardous job would generate some income for the family.
"This situation is mostly due to unawareness. If a child completes studies up to grade 8, he or she is then 13-14 years old. At that age they can start training for skill development which will make sure they earn a respectable living in the future. Due to not having this awareness, parents send their children to work. Notably, at Dholaikhal or Keraniganj there is an abundance of child labour available."
When asked about a possible remedy, he stated, "There is already government policy to eradicate child labour, but the safety net of social security should be expanded more. Awareness should be spread so that families don't send a child to work and instead send them to primary school."