Thursday, 15 September 2016

Child Labour is India's Shame

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.”
—     Agatha  Christie

Childhood, as Agatha Christie the famous writer says, should be enjoyed. It is supposed to be the most carefree phase of life when the child gets to explore the world with all its eccentricities and quirks and question each aspect of it. It is the most important development phase in the life of a human being when values and morals develop through knowledge and education being imparted. Guidance of elders at this stage defines the place in the society the child is going to occupy in future. Childhood is akin to platform of life, often waiting to board the right train in the quest for a human being’s ultimate goal in this material world – even though the child is too young to comprehend the importance of the same.

But, what happens, when the child boards the wrong train or inadvertently gets to the wrong platform – say bonded labour at a very tender age of six, even before he understands what this is all about? What is the root-cause that drove the child to earn his livelihood when he should be in school learning the basics? Who is responsible? What repercussions does it have on the child and on the society as a whole? What steps should be taken to address the same? These questions should intrigue us as moral responsible citizens who are often witness to such instances in our daily life but have come to accept it as a norm. We need to understand that it not only derails the entire future of the child, but also has a disastrous effect on the mental well-being of the child which steers much of his adult life. Such grownup adults often have a distorted outlook about life and may pose a threat to the very society that pushed them in the wrong path.

Child labour is a serious blot on our society and our tolerance towards it shows our cold-heartedness in tackling this serious issue. Each underprivileged child, if empowered to learn and study during the crucial formative stages of life can advance our nation to the next level – we very well could have a high probability of the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sachin Tendulkar, Chetan Bhagat, Mary Kom, Kiran Bedi, future Prime Minister, President, Chief of Army or Chief Justice of India rising up from among them. It should give one much pleasure to ponder on the fact that so much talent could be harnessed by diverting the right resources and environment to the needy.

Though there has been conscientious effort by both government and private organizations [NGOs] to address the issue of child labour, it has borne little fruit. Every other day, we get to read in the newspapers about children being rescued from factories, industrial units, hotels and urban homes. This, despite the fact that Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 has been passed, which clearly articulates that any child below 14 years of age cannot be employed in hazardous or menial occupation enforcing Article 24 of Constitution related to fundamental right against exploitation. The amendment to the act in 2006, also prohibits children to be employed as domestic workers and servants in households. Still, we do come across numerous instances wherein children are toiling day and night for a decent livelihood whilst they should be playing around with their peers.

We first need to understand the magnitude of the problem. UNICEF estimates that India has 12.5 million child labourers according to 2001 census, the highest number of child labourers in the world. This number is a huge increase from 11.3 million as per 1991 census and is a worrying trend. One aspect is clear – there has been little curtail on child labour, indirectly pointing to the fact that the measures taken to curb including penalties are not deterrent enough to stem the tide. An article published in the Hindu dated 21st July, 2014 mentions 4,300 child labourers being rescued from Delhi alone since 2009 – most of them employed in barred places like factories and hotels. If this number is compounded with the number of metropolitan cities, mega-cities and tier-1 cities taken into account, the count would increase exponentially, ignoring the count of unreported cases.

 Copyright: The Hindu

The issue needs to be looked at from a 360 degree view rather than a piece-meal approach. One needs to understand what forces the child to work at such a tender age, often at places far away from their families and the most basic reason would be the meagre pecuniary condition of the family – the divide between the rich and the poor has increased drastically since the advent of globalization, where the government pegs the BPL limit at measly Rs. 32 for rural and Rs. 47 for urban spend for an individual. For the poor, getting two square meals a day becomes a daily hurdle to be crossed which ultimately drives the child to fend for himself. Desperation also plays an important role, taken advantage of by the hawks aka agents of human trafficking on whose behest the child is often sold at few thousand rupees by needy parents; such is the real value placed on the child.

The child if lucky enough lands up with a good employer, but more often than not has to work under unbearable circumstances for long hours and no holidays. For girls, the situation is even worse where they are at the mercy of their employers and are targets of sexual predators; molestation and at times rapes are recurring events of their life. Many of the unfortunate girls, directly land up in the flesh trade, which has the most serious consequences on their mental well-being. Human Trafficking is one of the worst crimes that can be imagined and the perpetrators should be punished strictly according to Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 enforcing Article 23 of Constitution related to Fundamental right to Prohibition of Traffic in Human Beings and Forced Labour.

The prevalent solution in most of the cases where children are rescued is repatriation to their native place for rehabilitation. It is to be noted here that most of the rescued children are from poor families of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh; all belonging to the bottom quartile in the list of states as per Indian Human Development Index while Kerala leads the pack with highest HDI. The Labour Department sends Rs. 25,000 to District Magistrates annually for the welfare of each rescued child, but there are no effective tracing and tracking mechanism. More, importantly, the money is often not enough to sustain the basic requirements of each child. The family situation of the child remains same as before and the family still has to struggle to make both ends meet. It does not solve the real problem.

The government has to develop a multi-pronged solution to address the root-cause. Much has been done, but it must be fool-proof solution. First and foremost being poverty alleviation. MNREGA is one such initiative that touches the bottom of the pyramid directly. But it is mired with corruption that needs to be tackled strongly. More such initiatives need to be taken to improve financial condition of the poor. Secondly, ensuring that all children attain primary education which is their fundamental right as per article 21a of the Constitution. Various incentives like Mid-day meal schemes has been a huge success in most of the states. It has not only resulted in the decline of school drop-outs in primary classes, but has also provided a cost-effective means for the under-privileged child to continue his education, who otherwise may have been forced to take up a job. An additional aspect is rewarding family of girl child. For example, in Punjab, girl students have been gifted bicycles to travel comparatively larger distances to reach school along with free education. It also needs to be mentioned that though RTE has been passed, it needs to be implemented in earnest at all levels. Thirdly, with the passage of Food Security Act of 2013, it is expected that the poor is supposed to derive most of the benefits of subsidized food items through targeted Public Distribution System [PDS]. This should provide some respite to the poor so that they are not forced to send their wards to work. Fourthly, the judiciary and police needs to work hand-in-hand to curb this menace. All cases, pending before the National Commission and State Commissions for Protection of Child rights and Children’s courts should be fast tracked. Lastly, all Labour Inspectors should be held accountable for any child labourers being employed under his area of jurisdiction. Any lackadaisical approach should be done away with stringent punitive measures in place.

But one cannot put the onus on the government alone. Given the vast size of our country, huge population and the economic imbalance, the responsibility to address the issue of child labour lies equally with the citizens of our country. We, as responsible human beings, have to be conscious of the impact of child labour and the negative impact on our society and cannot afford to turn a blind eye. All instances of child labour should be promptly reported to the concerned authorities. To achieve this, we need to alleviate ourselves to cherish the ideals that the founding fathers of our nation envisaged, by developing a strong sense of moral character within ourselves and ensuring that the children from underprivileged families also lead a happy and joyous childhood.

For the growth of any nation, youngsters play a very crucial role. Nation rides on the well-being of these youngsters who are ultimately responsible for leading the nations in the world-stage. It is upto us, what kind of future, we as responsible citizens imagine for our successive generations – one, that is compassionate and upholds the freedom for all, foregoing the rooster coop mentality and pulling up the deprived ones by the more fortunate citizens as Gandhi-ji envisioned, or remain self-centered and concerned with the well-being of self, taking full advantage of the deprived sections of our society, to the extent of forcing a child to forego his childhood. In case of latter, future of our society will be pretty bleak indeed unless we strive towards eradicating the blot – the child labour in all its forms.

As Franklin D Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.

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