By Taw Nana:
“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him,” said Mahatma Gandhi, offering advice on undertaking a new venture. It’s the very question the government could and should have pondered on before imposing any new law, including the Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2016.
Because, as the statistics point out — and anyone with the faintest idea of social dynamics knows — an overwhelming majority of child labourers belong to the poor and marginalised groups in India.
In July this year, India seemingly legalised child labour by adding to the Act a clause that allows children up to the age of 14 to work in a ‘family enterprises’ or ‘as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry’ after school hours and during holidays. Many child rights activists have argued, even protested, against the amendments for valid reasons: there is no specific work timing for the children, and the list of hazardous occupations have been reduced to just “mining, explosives and the occupations listed under the Factory Act”.
I am associated with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organisation working towards ending sex trafficking and empowering girls and women from communities labelled as ‘freed/ de-notified tribes or ex- criminal tribes’. Many of whom are forced to indulge in traditional occupations, passed on from one generation to the next, which includes prostitution, shoe-making and repair, entertaining people with monkeys and snakes, farming, selling crafted items at traffic signals etc.
When the country was hooked to television celebrating Sindhu’s silver medal in Rio Olympics, a group of activists were gathered in a small room calmly discussing the next move against the law. There were many other similar meetings. Almost throughout, we looked at each other and without even uttering a word aloud, understood and accepted the difficult times ahead. It was a battle fought on behalf of those millions of children, who don’t even know of our existence.
Surprisingly, the voices that were echoed against the amendments in the Child Labour Act, 2016, were just of the selected few activists, intellectuals, and some supporters. And probably, the loud silence that came from the crowd did not even realise the severity of the situation, because seeing ‘chotu‘ work in dhabas, restaurants, hotels, dhobi ghats, slaughter houses, as domestic help, child rearer, in an agricultural field, recycling garbage, at brick kilns etc is probably not something that surprises us anymore. We have stopped questioning and accepted ‘the role they play’ – serving us tea at friends’ or relatives’ house.
And this, when India is chest-thumping for successfully retaining the tag of the strongest growing economy in the world. We, however, chose to remain oblivious to the fact that there are 1,01,28,663 child labourers aged between 5-14 years in our country ( 2011 census). Some of them are also the force behind India’s growing economy. And be assured, we won’t hear their dissents; we won’t hear them fighting back for their right to childhood — as 90 percent of them are from marginalised communities. Most of them have either little to no formal education to understand that the government has imposed a law to make their living conditions from bad to worse.
Child Labour is considered as “the practice of having children engage in economic activity, on part- or full-time basis. The practice deprives children of their childhood, and is harmful to their physical and mental development.” According to UNICEF, “a child is considered to be involved in child labour activities under the following classification: (a) children 5 to 11 years of age that during the week preceding the survey did at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 hours of domestic work, and (b) children 12 to 14 years of age that during the week preceding the survey did at least 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity and domestic work combined.”
Apne Aap, along with other organisations has been running a campaign called #QuitChildLabour in Change.org. In our letter to the Prime Minister, we have sought the deletion of Section 3 in clause 5 that allows child labour in the family, or ‘family enterprises’ or ‘as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry’. Instead, we demanded to add a clause to allocate funds (beyond those taken from employers of child labour) for the restoration of mid-day meals for children, re-opening of the 42,000 schools for poor children that were closed down, and the re-instating of budgets for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ( Education for All) initiative.
The reason behind our emphasis on deletion of the family business in most cases is that the child does not decide their own future. The decision maker is their family, extended family members. For instance, Vivek from Dharampura (New Delhi) wants to wear a uniform and go to school like other children. But his simple dream remains unfulfilled, as he was born in Singhi community. He is a cobbler at the age of 12 , helping out in the family business. No one in his family has ever entered a school. Similarly, Rani Kumari, aged 12, from Forbesganj (Bihar), feels guilty every time she goes to school, as she is the only one in her family, who is continuing her studies. Her older siblings — three brothers and a sister have all dropped out of school to help their mother in the fields. There are lakhs of Viveks and Ranis across the country. By the time, I, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, graduated to college, I had seen enough faces who dropped out of school as they failed to balance study and work simultaneously. It was too much of a struggle for their little bodies to bear.
The Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) stated that the primary level drop-out in Arunachal Pradesh is 10.9 percent. And overall, there are 47 million dropouts in primary schools, out of which 2.9 million have never been to schools, as reported by Unesco Institute for Statistics. India has the highest number of ‘out of school adolescents’. Globally, there are about 263 million children who are not in school.
It is not much we are asking for. Allow the children to dream of rainbows, beautiful places, queens, kings, becoming someone important and leading a ‘normal’ life and not one as a slave. Also, it is no longer a matter of debate if the gap between haves and have-nots is ever widening – especially, if one section is bestowed with all the benefits and the already marginalised ones are pushed further to the edge. The injustice is absolute and painful. Karl Marx, an eminent revolutionary socialist and strong opponent of Child labour who once said that the British industries, “could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood too”.