“Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ ” – Matthew 19: 14.
The problem of child labour has been a perennial one – and it has denied these very children the ‘kingdom of heaven’. Child labour isn’t anything new – and it has denied them the basic rights of childhood including the rights to play, education and leisure. Instead, they are bundled to work in dangerous work environments where they don’t think of these inalienable rights.
As per a study in 2012-2013, India had an estimated 32 million persons in the age group of 14-18 years, who are engaged in labour. A majority of them work in rural areas – and nearly 75% of children are employed in agriculture, as cultivators or in household industries.
Furthermore, according to another report, the unorganised mining sector is another hotbed of rampant child labour. Another sector that has unparalleled notoriety, when it comes to the issue of child labour is the fireworks industry, which have manufacturing units in places like Sivakasi. Industries producing beedi, incense sticks and matches also contribute significantly to the problem.
But perhaps, the most evident sight of child labour is in the form of domestic labourers in dhabas, restaurants and roadside eateries. According to the UNICEF, an estimated 185,595 children are employed in such places.
The biggest reason for this scourge is the incidence of poverty. In fact, the Noble Laureate Kailash Satyarthi is of the opinion that child labour perpetuates poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, population growth and social problems. Sadly, many people from the low income class don’t understand the bane of child labour and invariably gets sucked into this vicious cycle. Apart from poverty, lack of education is another major factor. With quality schools generally not available in villages, most children are forced to work in taxing working conditions for low wages.
A more intrinsic study by Biggeri and Mehrotra shows that child labour isn’t a new problem. Problems are posed both by the demand and supply sides. While poverty, lack of schools, education are problems on the supply side, the demand side is fuelled by the low-paying informal sector. The ‘price paid’ due to rigid laws and legislation makes the issue even murkier.
The issue needs to be seen from a macroeconomic perspective. This is mainly because there are children who go to school and also work in manufacturing and economic activities – which reveals the inflexibility and informal nature of the labour sector.
Staying in a bustling metropolis like Kolkata, the issue of child labour is evident to me in every nook and corner – with children going about doing their mundane chores and gloomy tasks. Only yesterday, on my way back home from teaching, I came across a small kid near the ticket counter at a metro station who oozed much confidence. His outgoing nature impressed me so much that I started talking to him. I came to know that he worked in a stall and had managed to save ₹5 for a ride. I asked him about his schooling thrice – a question he evaded by not saying anything. He looked all of six or seven years – but he told me that he’s 11 years and not to be fooled by his height. I was so amazed by his outlook that I wished I spoke to him more. This encounter also made me ask myself if we, who belong to the educated privileged class, are doing enough.
The governments and institutions have introduced several laws to combat this menace. The Child Labour (Prohibition And Regulation) Act, 1986, was instituted to prohibit the employment of children below 14 years in hazardous occupations. However, recent amendments to this act in 2016 seem to be progressive. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, defines a ‘child’ as a person who has not completed 14 years of age, and an ‘adolescent’ as a person who is older than 14 but hasn’t reached 18 yet. The Act prohibits the employment children in any occupation and that of adolescents in hazardous occupations. The Act also calls for the imposition of fines on those who employ children.
However, on closer reading, it would seem that the Act hasn’t been that progressive. It has reduced the number of ‘hazardous occupations’ from 83 to just mining, explosives and the ones mentioned in the Factories Act, 1948. It also permits child labour in ‘family-based enterprises‘ and allows a child to be ‘an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry’. It also does not define working hours but states that a child can work after school or during vacations. Despite constitutional provisions like Article 24 (which calls for the prohibition of employment of children below 14 years in hazardous occupations) or Article 21A and Article 45 (both of which call for compulsory education of children between the age of six and 14), the problems still persist.
The Union government formulated a budgetary outlay of ₹6 billion for implementing these amended rules. However, there have been massive reductions in budgets for education, women and children. This has led to numerous schools being closed, apart from the severe physiological and health consequences. According to the UNICEF, 10.1 million children in India are engaged in some form of work.
Therefore, it is not always prudent to expect only the government and the administration to do their bits. As responsible and educated citizens, we have been equally dismissive of the problem – even when see children employed in our families or amongst people we know.
First, are we even aware of the child labour laws? We all know that child labour is bad, but the most we do is sympathise. Are we aware of the constitutional provisions? As responsible citizens, therefore, let us take a pledge to knowing these and understanding them better.
Secondly, as customers we should be as aware of a product’s specifications as we are eager to buy it. Thirdly it is important to speak with the families of these children. As poverty and ignorance are the main reasons why these children are engaged in labour, it would be a godsend for them (and their families) if we decide to sponsor their education (or at least, a part of it) after coming to know of their circumstances.
Finally it is equally important to be proactive, alert and report any instances of child labour and abuse. This is important because these children are generally in their formative stages, and such incidents can therefore leave long-lasting effects or scars.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” The war is a long and arduous one – filled with loopholes and shortcomings from institutions, governments and the administration. However, the onus lies on us to win it.