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At construction sites, India's poor children swarm

By Sara Sidner, CNN
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Parents bring kids to Games work sites
  • India is rushing to get ready for the Commonwealth Games
  • Games construction highlights one of India's problems
  • Children of the poor swarm over construction sites

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- There are five days left until the opening day of the biggest sporting event India has ever put on.

While there is a furious push to finish dozens of projects around the city to try to make it sparkle for the upcoming Commonwealth Games the plight of the smallest and poorest citizens of India go wholly ignored.

Impoverished children are crawling all over many of the Commonwealth Games related construction sites. Some sit inches away from speeding cars on mounds of dirt, others walk under massive machinery, and some pick up the tools and bricks around them as their parent work a full day.

"This is happening all the time and people just turn a blind eye," said Save the Children Advocacy Director in India Shireen Miller.

Miller says by law the children should not be on construction sites, while they are not normally paid by the contractors, the older children often end up doing work for free just to help their parents.

"It shouldn't be happening. Children should not be there unprotected, unsafe and working."

This is happening all the time and people just turn a blind eye
--Shireen Miller, Save the Children Advocacy Director in India
Video: Cost of the Commonwealth Games

The contractors are supposed to create a safe place for the children near the sites. Child advocates say that rarely happens.

Instead mother's hold small babies on their hips while carrying loads of dirt on the their heads, or they put them down on the site surrounded by the dust and danger construction can pose.

"Where can I leave them? mother Lal kumar said with her toddler on her hip. "I bring them wherever I go."

The workers are normally from the poorest and most desperate parts of India. A subcontractor shows up in their villages and offers work in big cities like New Delhi. There is no work in their villages, so the entire family moves from place to place to sustain themselves.

"If there is poverty then the kids come themselves, if there is poverty then what else can we do. There is nothing in our village, so because of poverty, we're here." Kuwar said.

She has two young children who on this day were playing in the dirt and with the tools as cars buzz by and Kuwar plowed into the ground with a shovel.

The scene is repeated on construction sites throughout the city, and by no means is this just on sites related to the Commonwealth Games. You see children playing, sleeping or sitting on everything from road construction sites to private home construction.

When the child is old enough like 11-year-old Jitender you sometimes see them doing the work.

We ask Jitender if he is being paid to pick up bricks on a huge construction area along side a busy New Delhi highway.

"No." He said, "I don't work here but I help my mother."

And in so doing the contractor gets free labor, the parents get a helping hand, and the child has something to do. But child advocates say this is one step toward child labor continues a cycle of poverty and is simply dangerous for children.

"What you see at constructions sites, all kinds of hazardous materials," activist and urban planner Dunu Roy said. "We don't see too much of deaths but [we see] injuries, cuts and certain amounts of a disease like dengue [and] stomach borne infections."

However there are people trying to do something about the dangerous and illegal position children are being forced into. For decades an Indian organization called "Mobile Creche" has been convincing contractors to let them set up day care facilities for children on the construction sites.

"I would have kept them with me at work but it is not allowed. Now they have also started go to the school," a mother of four told CNN back in 2008 as she nursed her baby before heading back into Nehru Stadium to continuing laying bricks.

Yet as a whole the police, government officials, and everyday citizens pass by the construction sites everyday and do nothing.

Suraj Singh, a subcontractor on one site with a half dozen children on it told CNN, "This is just how it is for the poor. What safety can there be for the poor? Tell us? There is no safety for the poor. This is life. These people don't have the money to leave their kids at home with servants, and work here." Singh's reaction may seem callous but is too often true.

Billions have been spent on beautifying the city because of the games. As it turns out the games have also exposed the world to one of India's ugly problems.