Once A child laborer, Khem Lal Khaterji is Helping Draft India’s Anti-Trafficking Bill

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Khem Lal Khaterji

Human trafficking is the third-largest crime after drugs and firearms. If we talk about India, as per government data, almost 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in 2016, a rise of nearly 25 percent compared to 2015, and globally the statistics indicate that millions of women, men, and children around the world become victims of human trafficking each year, according to the United Nations.

Today, throughout the world, around 218 million children work, many full-time under dire conditions. According to the recent estimate by ILO, around 152 million children are working as child labor in India out of which 72 million are trapped in the hazardous working environment. Under the National Child Labour Project, over 58,000 children were rescued across India.

“When the lives and the rights of children are at stake, there must be no silent witnesses.” – Carol Bellamy.

Khem Lal Khaterji was also once a child laborer, who today works with SAANS rescuing others from the same fate.

Khem Lal Khaterji was only six years old when he was forced into slavery. He was one of those kids who are born into slavery. At an age where children barely learn to eat their own food, Khaterji was forced to work for hours a day under severe conditions. His parents were construction site workers and worked on daily wages. They could barely meet end needs, thus by the time Khaterji learned how to walk properly, he too began working alongside his parents.

On one occasion, his parents were sold from one contractor to another and thus they shifted from Chhattisgarh to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. They lived in an environment, where they were not even able to raise their voices for basic human needs. His father was already in debt thus he couldn’t afford to buy his family’s freedom. They were now enslaved to a new master.

Khem Lal Khaterji

They were expected to toil and make 1,500 bricks each day. They worked continuously all the while being exposed to smoke and dust on a daily basis, due to which his father soon caught cholera. Though their new master did provide them money for treatment, they were also drowned in more debt, making it nearly impossible to break the shackles of slavery.

“We had nothing to show for ourselves despite working so hard. No ration card, no access to clean drinking water, and not even a proper roof over our heads. We lived in such tiny spaces and were for all practical purposes slaves.” says Khem Lal Khaterji in an interview with The Better India.

But despite growing up in extreme conditions, Khaterji’s father always told him to study. He would often counsel Khaterji to study hard so that one day he could live a life of dignity and freedom. Khaterji understood this fact and started working very hard. He would find ways to escape from work and attend school. For a while, it did manage well but once he was caught by the contractor, and what happened later was beyond human imagination.

Khaterji was just a 13-year-old child who wanted to study but his master was against that. The contractor heated up a large spoon and stuck it on his cheek. He was begging to let go however the contractor denied doing so. This was just the beginning of Khaterji’s abuse. From there on, he was beaten frequently and made to work for almost 18 hours a day. Very often he was not even paid.

Once he hit his mother and at that very moment Khaterji decided to leave school and do exactly as told. For the next three years, Khaterji and his family continued working as slaves before they were finally rescued by an NGO working in the area.

Khem Lal Khaterji

For the first time in his life, Khaterji experience humane behavior. They were treated with kindness and provided with comfortable conditions. They were sent back to their village and his father used the relief funds to buy a toffee-making machine while Khaterji worked hard and enrolled in a college. Khaterji obtained a Masters’s in Social Work degree from Kalinga University.

After his graduation, the 27-year-old Khaterji is now working full-time to save others from the same plight. Initially, he started working with the same NGO that saved him and worked hard to aware people of the evils of bonded laborers and human trafficking. He is also educating such people about their rights. In this process of rescuing others, Khaterji has finally found a way of healing himself.

In 2020, along with other survivors of human trafficking, he formed an organization called Shramik Adhikar Aur Nyaya Sangathan (SAANS). Through this organization, he is rescuing other people and helping them lead better lives. Recently, he rescued 12 laborers from Pathankot, Punjab. Khaterji is now working closely with the government to draft an anti-trafficking bill. SAANS is a part of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, which is advocating the government for a comprehensive Anti-Trafficking Bill.

Khem Lal Khaterji is living on his motto, ‘When we know better, we need to do better’, and that’s what keeps him going. 

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