Five years back, at six in the morning, I was trying hard not to doze off again while sipping hot tea. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Independence Day celebration in a high school, which was at a stone’s throw from my apartment in Kolkata.
A silent onlooker – I was completely enjoying the hustle bustle, the flag hoisting, the national anthem and the ambience. To me, the most glorious part of the celebration seemed to be the incredible speech by the school’s principal. In a steady baritone, he touched upon almost everything – the independence of the country, the common masses – and towards the fag end of his speech, he talked about independence of children and all the noble initiatives the government had taken to bring smiles to the faces of street children.
As I listened carefully, he started talking about child labour, and how India is finally heading towards good times. He seemed a little conscious, a bit careful and somewhat hasty. Then I noticed – a dark, skinny figure, barely knee-high, selling tiny Indian tricolours outside the school gate.
The next five years of my busy life somehow managed to land me in apartments right next to schools. Schools that never failed to have 10- to 12-year-old-kids selling tea, tricolours, balloons, flowers outside the enormous gates on August 15. Slowly, somewhere, I felt many a question bubble up – the only unresolved matter being understanding what exactly I was trying to question. The half-served independence? Or the half-blind nation that was only busy hoisting the national flag?
In these 70 years, we have been vehemently celebrating so many ‘Independence Days’ – at times, even taking time out for the World Day Against Child Labour on June 12. The figures and statistics, however, have been stubborn. Nearly 33 million children in India are employed in different kinds of child labour activities. You can spot them almost everywhere. Almost every roadside tea stall is likely to have a “Chotu” who started going to school, but left midway and began their journey as a child labourer.
Once, I happened to strike a short conversation with one of these kids who was hastily piling up washed dishes in a dhaba.
“So your parents allow you to work here the whole day?”
“Well didi, my father himself brought me here. And not the whole day, didi. In the afternoon I go to those tall buildings where my mother works as a maid. I help her out with some of the chores.”
Do you see the real problem here? While we are all revved-up to serve justice to the children in peril, are they even willing to step out of the mould? Do they understand what is happening to them? Shockingly, even their parents will protest even before you express concern.
“Madam ji, those heavy paperbacks are for the rich. We have mouths to feed!”
Understandably so. But while the Minimum Age Convention, 1973, has not ventured much beyond courtroom papers, are we going to wear the badge of disgrace for another 70 years?
A few carefully chosen paths may help open many a door for these children.
1. Make them understand the worth of education. They need to realise that independence does not simply mean raking in a meagre sum from an early age.
2. Children need to be stopped from working in factories and other hazardous environments. For this, the children need to be properly informed and taught about the hazards and the possibly fatal nature of such jobs.
3. Take initiatives and urge the employers to double check the ages of their employees.
4. National laws need to be strictly implemented and enforced, especially in workplaces that tend to hire children.
5. Funds allocated for child welfare, especially the ones for underprivileged children need to be strictly monitored. A major portion of the vulnerabilities and insecurities of children can be done away with, if financial stability is assured.
6. There need to be well- established policies to re-enrol children who were withdrawn from schools and compelled to work as labourers.
The National Child Labour Project (a scheme approved in the 7th Five Year Plan) was indeed the first major stride in protecting the rights of underprivileged children. But much like the rest of the laws and amendments, it has found its place only in the law books. While the child labour crisis does not completely monopolise the socio-economic problems India is facing at present, it is safe to say that it has plagued the nation for years.
As a citizen willing to transform the nation responsibly in the coming years, I strongly feel it’s time we make these children and their parents rethink about ‘independence’. Let the upcoming generations witness an era of conversion of currently empty verbal promises into actual practice.
Image used for representative purposes only.