The Missing by Sudha G Tilak

Child Labour in Refugee Camps

Western garment manufacturers exploit child labour in relief camps in India. Our senior reporter investigates this shocking practice in Sri Lankan Tamil camps.


In Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India lives little Valarmathi. She is the debris from the human crisis that is more than a twnty-five year-old militant struggle in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
My name is Valarmathi.

In Tamil it means the waxing moon, and is a pun on an evolving intellect.


Valarmathi is eleven years old, and is one of the many Sri Lankan Tamils who have been displaced by the armed struggle and war in the island between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government. Since the late 1980s, an armed struggle has been led by ethnic Tamils seeking a homeland in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Hostilities flared, revenge and vengeance and martyrdom notwithstanding, federalism remains an unfulfilled reality; secession a dissolved dream for the Lankan Tamils.

I am eleven years old. This is a frock I made of mother’s old sari myself.

Amma hardly wears her few saris. She seems to have abandoned them in the battered old suitcase in which she keeps her few possessions in our makeshift dwelling. She wears a printed nightie in cheap cotton all day long. She says it is easier to wash and consumes little soap and is comfortable as she fills water in big plastic pots at the hand pump, cleans, cooks and does odd jobs like letter writing for the old men and women in the camp through the day. I am deft with needlework. I learnt from mother. Our children need survival skills; education is a luxury for them, comment the wise folks around me.


There are over 120 relief camps in Tamil Nadu housing some 1,00,000 displaced Sri Lankan Tamils across the state. The Tamil Nadu government screens the camps for rebels from Tamil outfits and houses them in special camps with guards. Other relief camps such as the one Valamarthi lives in allow a better leeway. Sanitation, health and water and food remain limited in these camps where medical facilities and education for the many displaced children are woefully lacking.

Our daily meals are rice and a thin soup. No meat. We are Vellalars, agriculturists, and eat only vegetables.
I miss the tangy tomato sothi and spongy vermicelli balls of idiyappam, the coconut puttu made of ground rice steamed in bamboo shoots that we’d eat for breakfast in Sri Lanka. On days when we have a little money, after our payment arrives from the contractor, Amma makes me a rice pancake with a little milk as a treat. No fiery curries from yam and jackfruit, no crunchy, spicy vadaham sauces with red chillies to go with hot rice, no sweets made with sesame and jaggery. Those days when mother and granny would gather around the kitchen stove, planning meals for the men of the family and children seem forgotten, steamed out of our memories.


Valarmathi lives with her mother whose husband, father and son have joined the many missing persons’ lists, though they are suspected to be dead. The mother and daughter live in a dingy shack in a refugee shack near a textile town. Pakiam, the mother, does voluntary work in the camp’s makeshift school.
I have one mother.
Don’t smile, lady reporter with tape recorder and camera person. Many of my friends have more than one. Their first mothers were raped, murdered, jailed or turned soldiers, and they now have new mothers from their neighbourhood or from camps like these to foster them.


The real breadwinner in this family is young Valarmathi. In a flagrant violation of child labour norms many young girls are not attending schools and have no access to education here. Instead, they are employed by small businessmen who run hosiery export factories in neighbouring cities to embroider and stitch sequins on garments meant for export to America and Europe. The girls are paid a pittance of 20 Rupees for a day’s fine labour in ill-lit shacks.
Right now, we are to call this relief camp in Tamil Nadu our place of stay.
In Urumpirai, our house had a tiled roof, whose walls were made of coral stone, lime mortar with a slapdash coat of blue paint. We had two coconut trees that yielded bushy coconuts regularly that we used in our cooking.


Sri Lankan sympathisers and relief activists contacted in Chennai deplored the conditions in the camp and accused the government of apathy towards the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. They alleged that the local administration was taking advantage of their plight including indulging in child labour activities. They have promised to alert international organizations of such violations.
We do have a livelihood. A contractor from the neighbouring town comes by and gives us fabric for us to embroider. They find the fingers of young girls like me deft. I, along with some 10 ten girls in the camp do this embroidering patterns for them. It keeps us going as we earn. I keep busy.
Our families converse in whispers, mourn in silence and live in bitterness.



Sudha G Tilak worked out of Chennai for the first twelve years of her career as a journalist with The Telegraph, India Today and The Times of India among others. She later worked as journalist and editor in Kolkata, Britain and Delhi and has worked as an independent journalist for the past ten years. She won the Chevening Scholarship for Young Journalists in 1996. Her first short story ‘The Virgin Widow and Poppadams’ was published in The Little Magazine and ‘Calendar Gods’ won the ELLE Short Fiction award in 2012.

Her stories are primarily set in Tamil Nadu where she was born and spent the best part of her youth and career.