Neelu Ashok Nagpure is all of 11 years old but she single-handedly manages a family of five siblings, including a near-blind elder sister. Her day starts at 3 am, when she walks to a hand pump (where over 300 people have already queued up for water) with two drums, one bucket, one pitcher and four pots. Her day ends after 10 pm, when her family finishes dinner and goes to bed.
Neelu's family was ousted along with 350 other fisher folk on April 26, 2002 from the Totladoh forests and resettled in Wadamba area in Maharashtra.
These families soon found that their traditional occupation of basket weaving was no longer possible because of lack of raw material and customers. They had to find work elsewhere. Neelu's parents leave home at dawn and walk four hours to weave baskets for a combined wage of Rs 30 (1US$=47.5) per day. They rarely come home before 9 pm.
Neelu's neighbors, Manda, Chanda and Kunda Maraskule, 14, 13 and 11 respectively, are not so lucky. Their parents work as laborers in Nagpur and don't meet them more than once or twice a month. They return with Rs 200, which feeds the family for a few days. Sometimes, when they don't return, the children have to fend for themselves.
Children like Neelu and Manda are not alone. Disintegrated families are a grim reality for Totladoh oustees settled in Wadamba. While the government claims to have compensated them by giving tiny plots of 30 square feet each, most families have received nothing and have also lost their livelihood options.
Parents leave their children to migrate to Nagpur, or even to distant towns like Nashik, to look for work. There are more than 40 parent-less families in the settlement.
The social fallout is not hard to gauge. When the fisher folk first arrived in Wadamba, they were very quick to admit their children to nearby government primary schools. However, starvation soon forced the parents to leave their homes in the care of 'grown up' (11 and above) daughters.
Consequently, most of these girls have dropped out of school. The dropout rate among boys has, predictably, been less. Only a few parents have chosen to withdraw their older sons - 16 and above - from schools or push them to work for a living.
The workload on the 'little women' is enormous. Neelu has to bathe and dress her younger brother and sister, cook a meal for the afternoon, fetch dry twigs for fuel from a nearby forest, come back to cook an evening meal, wash clothes, clean the house and attend to her blind elder sister.
"I hardly ever get to sleep," says Neelu, whose tired eyes indicate her misery. She gets to bathe only occasionally for often there is no water left. "I have left school. Who will do all this work?"
The children are also vulnerable to other dangers when their parents are away. Yamu Waghade's three-year-old son died while she was away at work in Nagpur. Neelu's elder sister started losing her vision after a savage beating on the head from the elder brother.
The girls, who are forced to go into the forests to collect wood for fuel, are often heckled and even slapped by the forest guards. "The other day, a guard snatched the axe from my hand," says Chandana Funde (10). "When my elder brother heard about it, he hit me. Now I have to break the wood with my bare hands."
Sisters Sunita and Anjana Ramteke (9 and 15) share the housework. This gives an opportunity to Sunita to attend school for three or four days in a week. "We don't let our brother work. We tell him to study and get good marks," say the girls.
There has been significant rise in health problems among girls who have dropped out of school to look after families. Says Dr K Mohandas, who has lived with oustees in the past, "Overwork, lack of sleep and lack of sufficient food has destroyed their health. Most of them are severely anemic and suffer from aches and pains."
Shakun Bhatpai, mother of five children, says, "There will be more broken families. What comes first - starvation or family ties?"