The still, muddy water glistened with oil. There were no signs of any
life as Prabhu stood by the side of the narrow canal and squinted hard,
anxiously searching the depths of the murky pool. But the slick surface
made it hard for him to see anything beneath the surface.

Fear crossed the eight-year-old’s face. If he couldn’t find what he was
looking for, there would be no meal tonight.

Prabhu and the Prawns
Prabhu and the Prawns [Illustration by Anup Singh]

Prabhu is a shrimp seed collector. Every morning, he trudges nearly three kilometres to reach a shrimp farm in Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh. There he picks out tiny, baby shrimps called seeds from small, saline pools where they are grown, and transfers them to huge reservoirs.

When the baby shrimps grow into large prawns, they are exported to various countries around the world. In return, Prabhu is paid a few rupees (less than one US dollar) for his hard labour.

Like him, there are thousands of child labourers who work in prawn farms in coastal Andhra Pradesh, collecting baby shrimps to earn a living for their impoverished families.

The task of collecting shrimps from the water is a delicate one and
requires great skill. Prawn farmers prefer to use children for the job
because prawn seeds are very small and adult hands can damage and kill
them while taking them out of the water.

But even children are not allowed to use their hands. Instead, they use their mouths to lightly lift the seeds from the water as they float by. They then spit the seed into net baskets.

The work is both tedious and tiring as children often have to spend hours wading in the salty water, only to catch a handful of seeds.

At the farm, Prabhu is very popular because he always catches the largest number of shrimp seeds. Every evening, he gets a pat from Murthy, the farm owner.

But today, there are no signs of any seed. Close to the farm, there has been an oil spill. A pipeline carrying crude oil has sprung a leak and the oil has flown into all the water sources in the area. The small ponds at the prawn farm weren’t spared either.

As he looked around, all Prabhu could see was oil-stained water. A
thought crossed his mind – maybe all the shrimp had died. A chill caught his heart, for that would mean he would lose his job.

Murthy and his men were frantically inspecting the reservoirs. After an
hour, he announced that only three were working. Nine others had been
destroyed. By evening, he had sent back most of the children.
Fortunately, Prabhu had been spared. He would have to come back the next morning.

Prabhu heaved a sigh of relief. Even though his work was increasingly
affecting his health, he needed it. For more than a year, the job at the farm had helped support his family because his parents are unemployed and the small piece of land behind their home is barren.

But even his young mind knows that he may not be able to catch shrimps
for too long. Each time he dips his mouth in the water to pick a seed, a searing pain leaves him numb. The saline water that he drinks in
routinely, has left the inside of his mouth lined with sores.

He is barely able to eat so, at night, his mother prepares a special gruel of the coarse grain ragi for him. His feet, too, have begun to fester. But Prabhu can’t afford to go to a doctor because there is no money to spare for medical expenses.

But the eight-year-old has no time to ponder over these problems. To
him, all that matters is his daily catch. Every day, as he leaves for work, he is determined to improve on his previous day’s record. And once he is in the water, all pain is forgotten as his eyes dart in search of the elusive shrimp.