Raipur, India - Children as young as five are being required to work for the police force in central India despite prohibitions on child labour in the country's constitution.
At least 300 "child police" work in police departments across Chhattisgarh state in what officials insist is a compassionate policy to provide an income for the families of officers killed on duty.
But human rights groups argue the practice is wrong, and other means of support must be found. Some relatives also say the kid cops are losing out on their childhood.
"It's really inhumane to force children to go to an office to work instead of school," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The police department should look for other options. But such small children shouldn't be asked to come to the office."
For nine-year-old Animesh, who started working for the police when he was five, life is totally different from that of other local children. While they go to school, his mother has to cajole him to go to work on his tricycle by offering him sweets.
Animesh, who lives in the Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh, is one of more than 300 children who work for the Department of Police in the state, appointed on compassionate grounds after their fathers died on duty.
While these children have been assigned light jobs such as serving tea and carrying files, they also carry the heavy responsibility of supporting their families.
Animesh has to report to the office every alternate day in order to earn 4,200 rupees ($70) per month, but is free to attend school on the remaining days.
"It is not easy for me to persuade him to go to the office," said Sarojini, his mother. "He sees other children and wants to play like them. But he has to report for his duties at the office on every alternate day."
|Kancha Nemadi, 18, works in the police control room in Raipur, Chhattisgarh [Shuriah Niazi/ Al Jazeera]
His mother was 32 when her husband, a constable, died in a train accident when returning from duty, and feels bad about sending her son out to work.
"Five years is a very young age for a child to work. He used to cry a lot. He had no idea what office was. He has been deprived of his childhood," she said.
"He used to go to work in the office at an age when other children go to school and play. It was a difficult situation for us, but we managed somehow."
At an age when children in India love to play "police and robbers", Animesh hates to be seen as a policeman by his friends and office colleagues - who call him "Bachcha Police", or child police.
"I don't want to go to the office. They make fun of me. They call me child police. I want to go to school and study," he told Al Jazeera.
In the Chhattisgarh police department, any member of a family can be appointed on compassionate grounds and there is no minimum age. In order to be recruited permanently at the age of 18, the children have to reach a certain level of studies.
Animesh was too young to understand what had happened at the time of his father's death, and the boy's uncle, Chanrakant, who also works for the police, recognises that it is not easy for him.
"He still believes that his father is out of the station working. You know how difficult it is for him," Chanrakant said. "He sees his friends and other children going to school or playing. But with a heavy heart he gets ready to go to the office."
Saurabh Nagvanshi of Bilaspur district also lost his father and was recruited at the age of five by the police department, where he has already worked for nine years.
He travels by bus or train from Bilaspur to his posting in the Chhattisgarh capital Raipur, 100km away, then returns in the evening on the same day.
"I have to do it for the sake of my family. They depend on me and now I also have to think about my two younger sisters," said Saurabh, who also shoulders the responsibilities of his household.
"I am very grown up now and constantly think about the marriage of my sisters," he explained. "They are studying now but on my shoulders lies the responsibility to search for suitable grooms for them."
Saurabh studies in Bharat Mata School on his alternate free days but his mother is worried about his education because by the time he returns from work, he is exhausted.
The police also employ girls who have lost their fathers. Eighteen-year-old Kancha Nemadi works with 13 other children at the police control room in Raipur earning $70 per month, her family's only source of income.
She said: "I have no option, so I am working here. Like other children, I also nurtured some dreams in life but my destiny forced me to do this work. But I still hope that something good will happen to me and my family."
Those working for the welfare of children oppose the arrangements, and ask whether the government is breaking its own rules by employing them in the police department.
Article 24 of India's constitution prohibits child labour and various laws have been passed by the government to stop children from working.
Ganguly of HRW said the police should find another way of supporting these children, whose education is put at risk by having to work in this way.
"Their studies suffer as they are able to attend schools only on alternate days," she told Al Jazeera.
But the Chhattisgarh state government justifies its approach on compassionate grounds by saying it is caring for the families of those policemen who die on active service.
The state's home minister, Ram Sewak Paikra, said: "The provision is to provide relief to the family of those who die during service.
"It is something necessary for many families as they have no one to look after them."
Source: Al Jazeera