Somewhere back in the ’80s, Shantha Sinha came across children working as bonded labourers while working in a village in Andhra Pradesh. She rescued some of them, and in 1991, convinced her family, which was running the MV Foundation, to also work for the cause.
That was three decades ago. And this Padma Shri and Ramon Magsaysay awardee hasn’t stopped since. Working with the foundation, she has helped mould crucial laws and policies, including provisions in the Right to Education Act, that shifted the very outlook towards how India viewed education, from a welfare to a rights-based approach.
In a telephonic conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, Sinha discussed the progress made in India towards ending child labour, the apathy towards children that still pervades all levels of society, and what she makes of the steps taken by the current government in the field of child rights. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): In December you signed a statement condemning the home ministry’s rejection of FCRA renewal applications of 25 NGOs. Do you think the government is opposed to the work that NGOs do? What do you make of this?
Shantha Sinha (SS): There is a mood and an environment created that you have to be cautious, that you can’t outstep or do anything that expresses dissent. Whether it is in real terms or not is not the issue. The government has been successful in creating a mood that it will not accept dissent. Instead of creating a mood that you have these freedoms – the freedom of association, freedom to dissent, freedom to protest, which are our democratic rights – somewhere, a mood has been created that all this is anti-national. So people are developing cold feet and I think it is very sad.
AJ: When it comes to child rights, have you seen government perception change over the years, especially in areas concerning policy matters and implementation of law?
SS: Let me start by saying that when I began work, there were many perceptions which I thought were against the child. One dominant perception was that children have to work because they are poor. Even the government had decided to set up night schools and non-formal education centres because they thought the family would need their income. This, we thought – and I was working on the behalf of MV Foundation – was totally objectionable from a child right’s perspective. You can’t discriminate between a rich child and a poor child. The poor child should have as much access to education as others.
So we firmly advocated for the view that all children go to full-time formal day schools. We proved that poor parents want to send their children to school and that’s how we began lobbying for the removal of night schools and non-formal education centres. This was the first perception we had to take up, engage with and negotiate on with the government, in order to get the policy revised.
AJ: The new government has also passed two important laws regarding children – the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act. What do you make of these two laws?
SS: The child labour law was much awaited since RTE is free and compulsory for all. It (the government) had to amend the child labour law to make all children go to school and to say that no child must work and all forms of child labour should be abolished.
Having said this, I think it made a huge compromise in allowing children to work before and after school hours and putting this exemption there means that many occupations children are actually engaged in the informal sector continue to burden them. These are jobs rendered by girls, by Muslims, by Scheduled Castes, by Backward Castes – work rendered by the poorest of the poor. So I think the law was half-hearted and it didn’t do justice enough for children. I am quite disappointed with the child labour law.
The Juvenile Justice Act also has been very radical. It’s decided not to criminalise children. But it also compromised on children who are 16 or above and who have committed violent crimes. I am really scared for those children because one will have to first find why those children are there in the first place and then question the state’s responsibility.
AJ: When it comes to children, why do you think we make these compromises?
SS: I think there are two major reasons. I, first of all, blame it on the establishment and I don’t mean only the political establishment but also the elite establishment – who are in business, in politics, intellectual establishment, who don’t feel the need to consider the primacy of children in a country’s development and the country’s future. And they are looking at very short-term issues. Working with children is an intergenerational issue and somehow the elite have not looked at long-term intergenerational issues in the manner they should.
Second, there is also a societal lethargy about children. I would even blame the lack of shock and outrage in today’s society if children are deprived of their rights. I am not talking only of the poor children. I am talking of all children, rich and poor. I think we have not been sensitive to our children at all. So somewhere, I think it’s both. Society and the state are both responsible for lack of sensitivity and for ignoring justice and fairness for children.
Now we have reached a point where it has gone beyond expressing moral indignation and normative concern. One has to look at whether we have been just at all for children, whether we have been fair to our children. It’s time we looked at it.
AJ: Do you think the government is doing enough to end child labour in the country?
SS: There are some acts here and there of some interested district collector but then it works like an energy crash. We never know until when the collector will be interested and if it will taken forward after he leaves.
In a sense it shows that the state has the capacity to act but it will not act by itself in an institutionalised fashion. It will act only when there is an interested official or an interested NGO working. So I think there is a huge potential but it is not being taken up seriously. Look at the present budget!
AJ: I was going to ask you about that.
You are talking about 420 million in the age group of zero to eighteen. And look at Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. It has been raised by only some thousand crores and that too… it’s tokenism.
On secondary school education, it’s a pittance. If you want these children to finish class 8 and proceed further, then you must have the government’s presence in secondary school education. At the moment, it is completely privatised. Some 3,900 crores only for secondary school education?
Then look at the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. All the things that have been promised in the Juvenile Justice Act require institutions like the CWC, JJB, Special Police Unit or foster care, and sponsorship needs to be maintained. So many things have been promised, but where is the promise of budget allocation for any one of these?
It just shows a certain indifference to children and their predicament. And I really do not know what more can be done to get the establishment to look at children and their rights. And how many more protests? You can’t ask babies to come on the road and fight, no? So I really don’t know.
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