Fifteen-year-old Sunder seems to be without a care as the sea-breeze ruffles his hair. He stands on the deck of a boat, looking exuberant. His happy face, however, belies the difficulties that forced him to leave his family and work as a night watchman on one of the mechanised boats docked at the Nagapattinam harbour.“I had to drop out of school after standard XII to take up this job,” he says. “My family has debts running into lakhs and this is my bit to help out.”Sunder earns Rs. 50 a day for a job that involves a lot more than guarding the boat at night. When it arrives at the harbour, typically after a four-day trip, it is his job to clean it up. Every two hours, he must pump out any water that gets in and make sure that the deck and the engine-room are dry. Finally, he has to stay the nights on the boat as long as it remains in the harbour.
Sunder is not alone. All the 300-odd boats docked at the harbour have night watchmen. Most of them are between 14 and 16 years of age. Some, like 19-year-old Shiva, have even grown up on boats. Education, he says, is not a priority. “What is the point of studying when so many educated people are unemployed?” he asks. His friends, who also serve as night watchmen, nod in agreement.Though supplementing family income is the main reason why they work as watchmen, most aren’t in the job just to clear debts. They see it as a stepping stone to a brighter future. “When we grow up, we may venture into the sea as coolies; we may even own boats some day,” says 14-year-old Karthick.Some also aspire to work abroad. “If you go to Qatar, Singapore, or Malaysia,” says Tamizharasu whose brother recently returned from Singapore, “there are good chances of finding work as fishermen and earning good money.”There are times when the boat owner lets them travel out to sea on a four-day fishing trip.
But this is dangerous, as they don’t have fishermen’s identification cards. “When our boats are stopped for checking by the Indian navy, we hide in the engine-room,” says Sunder. “But if they find us out, they let us off with a warning.”So what do they do to stave off the boredom of looking after the boat at night once their chores are done? “We talk to each other, listen to music and we dance,” says Sunder. “Karthick is the dancing master,” he adds.Then Tamizharasu says, “Of course, we would like to play cricket, but we can’t afford a bat and a ball.”