As the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala gears up for another annual pilgrim season, authorities are drawing up a comprehensive awareness campaign to curb any form of child labour in the premises of the hillock shrine in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. Though child labour is banned by law in the area, tiny children, especially from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are seen selling bangles and toys beside forest fringe pathways during the pilgrim season. The state-run Child Protection Unit authorities are getting ready to launch a thorough drive, titled "Operation Saranabalyam", during the three-month-long pilgrim season, beginning on November 15 this year. These children are brought to Kerala by middle-men, discontinuing schooling in their home states, after promising some meager amounts to their parents, authorities said. Children, including girls, are sheltered in road side makeshift tents and employed to sell the products to pilgrims since early morning during the festival season, they said. "They mainly concentrate in areas like Laha, Kanamala, Nilakkal and Pampa. Children in the age group of 3-12 years are mainly employed to sell the articles.
The number of girls are also not less," Neethu Vimal,a CPU official, told PTI. The scene of a tiny child selling a bangle or toy would naturally trigger a sense of sympathy among passers by and the agents and middle men were trying to exploit this, she said. While some children come along with distant relatives, some are brought directly by the agents, she said, adding that a majority did not have any proper identity card or other documents. "Though it is not proved, we are getting complaints that these children,sheltered in roadside tents, are even subjected to sexual exploitation by local people. They are not only denied education, but also proper food, shelter and rest," she said. Detailing their proposed drive,the official said surprise inspections would be carried out in the camps with the support of various departments, including police and forest personnel. They have also plans to put up notice boards with anti-child labour messages in key locations, distribute pamphlets in this regard among local people and traders and carry out study classes, the official added.
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