By Shivani Nag:
Bill Haywood, leader of the industrial workers in the U.S. once said, “The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children.” Unfortunately, in case of India today, it is the government that has turned into a thief of children’s playtime and ironically, it has found support in a man who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the ‘Save The Children Movement’ that aimed to protect the rights of children across countries.
In the context of the Union Cabinet’s approval to the changes in the existing child labour laws to allow children below the age of 14 to work after school or during vacations to help their “family or family enterprises“, Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Laureate referred to above, shared that he is- “not opposed to the contentious amendment, which allows kids under the age of 14 to work in family-run enterprises, as long as the government restricts the definition of ‘family’ to parents or legal guardians and the work does not affect the child’s health, education and leisure time.”
First and foremost, this ‘haloed‘ and ‘sacrosanct‘ understanding of the family structures needs to be challenged and this continual citing of family to legitimize policing of consenting adults, marital rape, and now child labour must stop. To allow children to work in family set ups only means that now we have at hand a labour force that is completely dependent on the employer and uninformed of their own rights, so much so that they can hardly be expected to complain against inhumane work hours, non-payment of wages, or ill-treatment at work place.
Satyarthi goes on to add- “Children help their family and they also learn skills from their parents. Our condition is simple and clear that this ‘help’, and not an earning, must not be at the cost of the child’s education, health and free time.” To begin with, yes our contexts of learning are socio-culturally constituted as evidenced in case of learning of languages, early life skills, and even local knowledge systems. However, when it comes to vocational skills, the expectation that a child must be trained by the parents into the same by way of ‘help‘ is quite a casteist articulation.
This articulation has at its base a premise that one’s birth must decide what one’s vocation should be. Therefore, as the children of the ‘privileged‘ can gladly spend their holidays and post school hours travelling, reading fiction, watching theatre, playing and honing several other self-chosen skills, it is the children of the ‘unprivileged‘ who must resign to a lifetime of all work (chosen by the fact of their birth) without a moment for themselves doing things of their own choice. Regarding the concern that this must not be at the cost of the child’s education, health and free time, one really wonders, how if not at the cost of these, would the time for engaging in these ‘vocational skill training‘ opportunities be found?
Anyone who has worked or researched in the area of primary education in government school set-ups, and more importantly anyone who has experienced it themselves, will know that one reason for figures of enrollment failing to be reflected in classrooms is the familial responsibilities that so many children anyway have to share.
For the 6 years that I visited the field, the absence of enrolled girls in classrooms could majorly be accounted by the fact that they were required to stay back and babysit their siblings. Children across sexes would absent themselves on days when their parents were required to take their fares/produce to weekly markets in nearby towns. The most frequently shared reason for bad performance in a class test, assignment, or failure to complete an assignment was- “After going home, I had to help my parents with cleaning/taking care of infant siblings/helping in fields, etc. and hence did not get time to study/finish the assignment.”
It wasn’t just about the absences during school hours that interfered with their academic achievements, but also their prolonged engagements with family chores after school hours. It should not be forgotten that the schools that are being referred to, are already ill staffed, dependent on poorly trained para-teachers, infra-structurally lacking, and the concerned families hardly have any socio-economic or cultural capital to compensate. So far, at least the parents carried an expression of remorse anytime they ran into a teacher, but now you have a state provided legitimization of putting young children in non-school and non-play activities without a thought about their future.
As per his interview in Economic Times, Satyarthi was careful in pointing out that –”he was actively engaged with people at the “top level” to lobby for the above riders in addition to his demand that the government should not tamper with the list of 18 hazardous professions in which children between 15 and 18 years cannot be employed.”
It cannot be overemphasized that the fact that children cannot still be employed in occupations termed ‘hazardous‘ offers no compensation, as the term hazardous remains extremely narrowly defined. Are we indeed happy to see little children working on handlooms, family owned tea stalls, and as assistant helpers to working class parents, as long as their bodies remain ridden of external marks of injuries or burns? What of the hazard this change poses to their own future, their dreams of mobility and their desire to carve out a destiny for themselves different from that of their families? It is one thing for the children of multimillionaire industrialist to inherit all of their parents’ wealth including the reins of their family run empires, but why must a cobbler, or a blacksmith, or a handloom worker, or a carpenter, or a plumber’s child be forced to acquire the skills practiced by their parents and in the process be denied the right to choose their vocations for themselves?
Additionally given that the RTE guarantees free education only from 6-14 years, and that so far, lawfully, children could not be employed till 14, the parents and children still got some time to see a promise in what education has to offer. If the law allows children to be employed below the age of 14, the very fact that children may have gained some skills by the age of 14 after which education is no longer free, the cost of education (in addition to the perceived ‘opportunity cost of education’– i.e.-the wages a child might have earned if he/she was not to go to school and be employed elsewhere, but now has to forego because he/she chooses to be in school at that time) is more likely to encourage parents to force their children to discontinue schooling after the age of 14.
While the pleas of several child rights’, human rights’ and educational rights’ activists to ensure free school education from birth till class XII continues to fall on deaf ears, it is extremely shameful that those who cannot guarantee children free quality education have no qualms in forcing them out of school system and that those who have gained accolades by claiming to stand for child rights, have no qualms in legitimizing child labour in carefully guarded words.
Shivani Nag is Asst. Prof. Psychology, Ravenshaw University.