Shortchanged by change

This is a story that needs telling, or else, Nisha's fate will never change

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Sonal Matharu | December 18, 2010



When she was only eight, Nisha was put on the road by desperately poor parents to earn her keep selling cigarettes, gutkha and other odd nicotine fixes. Two years later, today, not much has changed for her.

She religiously puts up her makeshift shop every morning at the same spot she claimed for herself then, on a Noida pavement - the one by the DND near sector 16. Her dishevelled hair, runny nose and stunted growth take a year or two off her actual year. It seems almost heartbreakingly possible that she hasn't grown much since she was her eight year old self, out for the first time to work to eat.

Her small hands rummage through a beat, wooden box as she looks for something to interest me with. Out comes a bright yellow packet, which I vaguley recognise as some brand of 'mouth-freshener' - the obvious, banal euphemism for the addictive but thankfully nicotine-free tidbits.

“You can take paas-paas, or this,” she says, hoping to make a sale. I smile.

"You seem to know all cigarette and gutkha brands?" I ask.

“Yes, I know them all,” she says, slightly embarassed by the question, “I have been selling these for two years now," she says.

There are reasons why a ten-year-old may know one cigarette from another - poverty is one, a very compelling one. That our law will not let her buy cigarettes but turns the other way when she sells it, is another.

She begins her day at six in the morning, carrying her box and a mat, from her sector 17 home to her bit of the pavement. Fifteen hours later,  at nine in the night, it is time for her to close. As she rolls up her mat, she can only think if she made enough to live from one day to the next - after clinging on to rolled-down windows of cars that have stopped, selling a Paas-paas, or a Wills cigarette.

Frequently, a PCR van stands not far from where Nisha and three other tobacco sellers have set shop. But the police do not harass them. “The committee people come sometimes,” she informs, “Whenever I see their van, I quickly put everything in this bag, hang it on the railing behind the bushes and run away,” she smiles as she shows the dirty cloth bag. “I am very smart,” she blushes.

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How would Nisha's future be, if her present is not changed?

Does she go to school?

“No,” she says not meeting my eye. “Mother wants to send me to school. She went to the nearby school and they asked for 1,500 rupees. Shoes, uniform, books, all of it would need to be bought too,” she adds  as she hangs a strip of Rajnigandha, a popular gutkha, from a line. Packets of several other brands of gutkha hang from the line, a bait for those addicted to cancer.

“I don’t know which school it is. It is next to the house. But I have my old school books at home. I still read those,” she says. 

At four pm, she says, her sister will join her. Her sister is younger than she is.

Nisha is the eldest of the five siblings. “We three sisters, two brothers, mother and father,” she counts on her pixie fingers. If we go by the rule that the member of the family who gets money in the house is the head of the family, then Nisha is the one for her house.

Her father is a daily wage labourer and hardly gets work. If at all he gets money, he blows it all on alcohol. He brings no money in the house. Whatever money she earns by selling chutki packets for Re 1 and cigarettes for Rs 5 mostly, she gives it to her mother who gets food for the kids. Her daily income never crosses Rs 200.

Few days later I stop to talk to her again.

“My mother wants to meet you,” she says, “She wants some money. Can you give it to her? She will return it,” she adds promptly. Her mother has been unwell for three days. She complains of chest pain and doctors have asked her to get operated.

Nisha’s is not a news story. It’s not ‘breaking’. But it is too many stories within a story. She is deprived of education. She is a minor involved in illegal labour. She becomes a victim of domestic violence when her father beats her up and takes away her money. She is denied basic health amenities. Not one politician, not one state or government scheme, not one policeman and not one NGO has reached her yet. She has been sitting there, at the same spot, for two years!

There is nothing new about her life. There must be many like her, all stories heard and read about, but the fact that nothing has changed over the years, Nisha’s story must be told.

This was written in November. Since December, Nisha's spot on the pavement is empty.

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