Let’s call child labour what it really is 21st century slav­ery. The very phrase ‘child labour’ fudges the’ issue. It en­dows the illegal, immoral and unjust practice that violates the rights of our youngest citizens with undeserved legitimacy and societal sanction. If we called it by its real name – slavery – in recognition of the involuntary servitude that it condemns millions of our children to, we might perhaps begin to tackle it with the urgency and seriousness it cries out for. Instead, our 60-year-old republic, and we, its adult citizens, get away with a collective tsk, tsk.

In factories, construction sites, dhabas, shops, brothels, offices, farms, plantations, markets, streets and homes across India they serve out their bondage every day. You don’t have to travel to remote rural hamlets or underground sweatshops to see them. They wash our cars, fetch our groceries, deliver our newspapers, launder our clothes, clean our homes, and even tend our own children, in plain view.

Occasionally, we muster some pity and thrust a few coins or biscuits at them. A few of us go further. We write a cheque to an NGO and, by outsourcing our guilt, anaesthetize our­selves to the sight of them. We send out a feeble cheer each time our government takes some token step to alleviate their condition – an expansion of the laws against child labour, appointment of a commission, a censes to fund their education. We point fingers at politicians, bemoan bureaucratic corrup­tion, blame their hapless parents, and wring our hands in apa­thy.

What else can we do, anyway? The problem is just too big, too endemic, too intractable for our meager individual efforts to make any substantive difference. Apparently, our elected representatives feel as helpless as we do. And that, evidently, is all right by us.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. People just like us who refuse to tolerate the ongoing atrocity. People like Darshini, Neeraj, Shomik, Vinit and dozens of others who, despite their everyday occupations as students, homemakers and profes­sionals, have made it their responsibility to do everything they can to root out the problem. They make time in their other­wise normal middle-class lives to meet each week to figure out ways to liberate children in their neighbourhoods.

And they’re relentless. There is virtually no avenue they have left unexplored. They have run marathons, signed up volunteers, organized campaigns, met state officials, made a demand charter and more. They have met parents, urged them to send their children to school, and helped them eliminate the obstacles. They have helped them acquire ration cards, access government schemes and enroll their children in schools. They’ve spread the word in schools, colleges, neigh­bourhoods and offices.

What makes them different from the rest of us? They’re certainly no wealthier or better educated than any of us. They don’t have more leisure or less ambition than the rest of us.

Says Surojit, “What motivates me? A lot, but a major motivating factor for me is simply the loss of a childhood. Subjugating children to jobs when barely 10-11 years of age is simply a crime to me. No child deserves to waste his child­hood years cleaning dishes. It’s simply not done. Knowing that this continues is unbearable because one can’t sit back, watch and do nothing about it. We all have a choice. We can either wait for someone to do something about it, or just do it. I choose the latter”.

At the risk of sounding facile or; glib, that is all it really takes. Seeing the horror for what it really is – a crime against humanity as deserving of our outrage as skeletons in drains in Nithari or communities devastated by earthquakes and tsu­namis. The fact that there are few visible corpses shouldn’t blind us to the insidious, daily blighting of young lives. Lives, we as a nation, swore to protect when we accorded them citi­zenship.

Ending child slavery in India will require committed citi­zens in every neighbourhood to attack it at its roots. On ‘World Day against Child Labour’, if you’d like to shake off your apathy and start, joins this movement for child rights.