Will the law put a stop to child labour, or should we do something?

July 15 was the deadline for the public to send in comments and suggestions  to the government’s ministry of labour and employment, about the proposed amendment to the law on child labour (prohibition). An NGO, Walkfree, working on child labour abolition had put out alerts, urging the public to sign the petition to the government, but at last count just before the deadline, there were only around 2,300 signatures.

In a country of 1.2 billion people, this hardly qualifies as “popular involvement.” I haven’t seen any involvement on this in Bangalore. We need deeper thinking, especially among the citizenry (rather than the government) about the effectiveness of statutory “banning” of aberrant social realities like child labour.

Laws remain only on paper

Pass a law, call it progress and feel good, whether it is the Dowry Prohibition Act (passed in 1961, all of  53 years ago) or abolishing untouchability (declared when we adopted a new Constitution 64 years ago). Dalits are still being tortured and punished for daring to draw water from village wells, and caste factors openly and decisively determine  election result. Dowry is not only still persisting, it has taken monstrous proportions, with demands rising  over the years, and even law enforcers (police officials, ministers, political  ‘leaders’) figure among the guilty.

We mandated universal education under our Constitution, but statistics about dropouts, and the millions of children under 14 who are out of school, routinely become numbers making the news.

Children under ten years old  working as  cleaners, hotel  and tea stall employees, or in factories  (including dangerous units like fireworks ), putting in ten hour shifts, make good “human interest stories” for the media. A few arrests are made, the children are rounded up and sent to homes for the destitute or orphanages. Thereafter? Are there any follow-up investigations done, on whether the children are looked after and treated well, whether they are better off compared to when they were working and earning?

It is not that these children do not want to get educated. The reality is that government schools meant for these poor families that send their children out to work, are so shabby, with bad teaching, lack of basic facilities (no toilets, drinking water, not even roofs or blackboards) that they end up learning nothing. The reality is that these families are so poor that they cannot survive if the children did not bring in some earnings.

After 67 years of a dubious development, we have not been able to provide the basic minimum facilities needed for survival for these millions, regardless of which party was in power. And the pocketing of public money meant for improving schools, clinics and  water supply to all, has only grown to horrendous proportions over the years.

In a democracy (which is what we pride ourselves on being) if the government defaults on its mandate and its promises, we the people had – and have — a vital obligation to pull up our administrators and politicians, and demand better implementation. We the middle class in particular, have failed miserably in discharging this obligation. As long as our children go to good schools and our salaries are safeguarded, we do not bother about the poverty that we see everyday around us – the roadside cobbler, the ragpicker, the street children, the child at construction site that babysits its infant sibling while the mother carries head loads of bricks up the scaffolding. We look away or shift our glances and get on with our preoccupation. Or give ourselves excuses – “It is no use, nothing will change, why get involved”.

Child labour v/s education is a constant fight

We see fancy flyovers and metro projects around us, being built by indigent casual labourers whose children get no schooling, we see the government school next door where teachers thrash latecomers with canes (I have seen this myself) or slap them for wrong answers. There is a law against corporal punishment in school. Has that helped? Teachers are all “educated” people, they know it is illegal to hit children. Does that daunt them? Ask your watchman’s or servant maid’s kids, they will have graphic tales to tell about their school experiences.

So what are we doing when we “catch” child labourers and ask them to go to school? Do we ensure that the cause of their working as child labour is tackled at the root, or that they have enough food?

The poor cannot raise their voices, for obvious reasons – they do not know the law because they are illiterate (if we had been serious about our Constitutional promises, their generation should have been literate by now). Or, if they know the law, their complaining will only result in their children being thrown out of school, or punished more (for complaining). The poor do not – and cannot—demand that their children should get proper education. Only the rich have clout in today’s milieu.

The children who are out of school – never mind whether they make up 80 million or 160 million, either way the numbers are obscene and a national shame – have no clout to demand that they be taken out of work and put into schools. And we the middle class who could change matters, have not lent this segment of the populace our support.

Laws won’t help without political will

Pass a dozen more laws and amendments to existing statutes, it will not work because there is no political will to seek socio-economic equity. If you think that by voting periodically we help initiate betterment, it is time for disillusionment. Parties no longer seek power for helping the poor. They clamour to get to the corridors of power for personal gain, or favouring big industries in the name of “GDP growth.” Banishing poverty (which is the root cause of child labour) is not on the political agenda, notwithstanding the ‘promises’ that  all parties make in their manifestoes. Surely,  we the middle class adults, know this by now. What have we done about it? Why didn’t we even provide feedback to the government on the proposed amendment? Because “child labour” doesn’t concern us, the educated urban class?

“The system is corrupt”, you say ? Sure, I agree. But as individuals is there something we – each one of us — could do? Each one teach one, said Gandhi. Try it. Take charge of just one poor working kid, your maid or the local pourakarmikas, help them get good education, pay their fees and provide equipment, and ensure that at least one child is rescued from child labour. The only way forward is to empower the poor child, so that at least after a decade and a half, perhaps, we will have a citizenry that claims its rights guaranteed under the Constitution. And perhaps we will have a larger mass of citizens fighting corruption too, as a bonus. As long as poverty persists, no amount of legal amendments will deliver real social change.

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About Sakuntala Narasimhan 73 Articles
Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Jayanagar based writer, musician and consumer activist.

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