By Pranav Prakash:
A few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with one of the country’s greatest economists, who in characteristic modesty and in a manner far less emphatic than the issue deserved, recounted a speech by a famous political scientist from MIT who had visited our capital over a dozen politically iridescent summers ago.
For the purpose of the narrative, I will paraphrase his speech and include a few additional details, in an attempt to provide a more vivid representation of the idea.
The thought experiment that he had proposed to the audience in attendance was simple. He began by recounting how, in every one of his trips to the subcontinent, he would get to meet, and often closely interact with, several of his ‘middle-class’ acquaintances who worked and lived supposedly modest lives here. A typical visit to the homes of these hospitable colleagues of his would make for fascinating, but also to no small measure – paradoxical, tales that he could recount to his friends and fellow academics back in the States. For instance, he would travel by rickshaw and alight in front of a humble suburban home that, in and of itself, would suggest a lifestyle and an economic status that would resonate with a sizeable fraction of the country. He would, with great reverence, be invited into the house and would make his way past a maid sweeping the halls and into the dining room. In the midst of exchanging pleasantries with his hosts, a cook would step in and serve him lunch, prepared just moments before. As they continued dining, the doorbell would ring and the locale’s ironman would bring in a bag of freshly pressed clothes for the week, as the maid toiled away simultaneously washing the used ones. On occasions, he would even be present for a run-in with a servant who would appear twice a week just to clean the toilets.
Whenever these stories were shared with those abroad, especially to someone who had never set foot in India before, their reactions would typically range from curiosity to disbelief; it was, quite unsurprisingly, difficult for a person to fathom that the bulk of the middle class in a developing country such as ours could enjoy the luxury and lavishness that only their affluent counterparts, even in the most advanced economies, could hope to.
Now, as the audience, here’s what you have to do. Imagine you were transported back some sixty years ago to when the government of the day, was still creating policies for a fledgling democracy. Your task is to devise a method that would give the middle class a taste of the opulence that was just described and which could rival the greatest economies of the West. If you could suggest just one policy directive to ensure that this happened in the years to follow, what would it be ?
The answer is chilling. In order to guarantee that the middle class could continue to live a life of convenience, all you would have to do is to systematically ensure that a majority of the country’s population was denied education and hence, would continue to live under the shackles of a certain type of occupation, generation after generation.
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 which has just been passed in the Parliament seems to have been drafted with the frightening intention to keep education a prerogative of the middle class. Despite its progressive rectitude of making the employment of children below 14 years an offence and increasing the penalties and jail terms for offenders, it has created a loophole the size of Uttar Pradesh by allowing children to be employed in ‘family enterprises’. In fact, the probable lack of state capacity to prevent the perpetuation of child labour under the guise of family enterprises could only be surpassed by the sheer dearth of state will to prevent this exploitation, as evinced by the amendment.
One would have to look no further than one’s immediate neighbourhood to find the, often unknowing, beneficiaries and victims of this systemic and vicious cycle of vocational entrapment that has sustained for decades. The Right to Education Act now faces an uphill battle against this provision of the Child Labour Amendment Bill, as families from already disadvantaged sections of society would now, legally, be able to send their children to work in order to supplement their income, leaving practically very little hope for the kids to grow out of these professions as they grow up. The lifestyle of the middle class, however, carries a covenant of comfort for another generation.