the curious case of child labour

In a recent blog I had mentioned the story of the young boy who always came late to school because he supported his family by selling boiled eggs at the local watering hole well past midnight. He was the sole bread earner of his family.

Our house is being repaired and we have a band of workers. Among them a young boy who I think is 13 or so. When asked his age he is quick to mumble sixteen and a half as he has been told to as the child labour laws make employment of anyone under 14 illegal. Of course he has nothing to prove the fact. There was a time, way before pwhy, where I would have raised a hue and cry, summoned the contractor and insisted the boy was sent home. Today I just kept shut and allowed the boy to carry on. I knew that if I did send him home his family may not have eaten at night. You see he may too be the sole bread earner in his home. I have learnt many lessons in the past decade: one is to never act in haste and the other is to never act without having a better alternative to offer. In this case I had none.

Some time back I had visited the Child Welfare Committee's zonal office to sort Utpal's vacation guardianship issue, while waiting for our turn to appear before the Committee, we were privy to some of the ways the laws are applied in the case of child labour. The CWC premises have a holding area, a sort of jail, where children are brought after raids. The families are then informed and have to provide proof of the child's age. This can take several days and till then the young ones are locked up. What is the offense? I wonder. If the parents get the proof the child is released if not a case is registered. I again say what is the offense? Who is guilty: the employer, the parents or the child? Questions that need answers. And then what does happen to the child, often a teenager, when he is released? Does he just find another job? Does he simply hang out in the street as there is no way he can be mainstreamed or educated? Is he sent back to his village and if so what does he do there, wait for the next opportune moment to once again board a train to the big city?

The laws that concern child labour are complex and nebulous. It is surprising that the Child Labour Act of 1986 seeks only to prohibit children from working in some sectors and simply 'regulates' child labour in others. That means that even after 4o years of independence, child labour was found to be 'acceptable'. Think about this.

The National Policy on Child Labour of 1987 is the first step towards addressing the issue and talks of general development programmes to help the family and a project based action plan with special schools and so on. That is not what we saw at the CWC. Far from that. It seemed a case of a child being guilty and harassed parents left with the onus of proving that he was not. There was no development programme or project base action.

I am sure there are a lot of well drafted and great sounding projects and pots of money that has been released for the same. Sadly I am also sure that much of the money has never truly benefited any child. Like all issues concerning children, child labour is Gordian in nature. It has to be addressed with sensitivity and understanding.

Why does a child work? Certainly not because he really wants to. Often it is economic necessity that compels parents to send their young ones to work and there are enough predators around in search of cheap and innocent labour. Sometimes it is a simple fight or argument that makes a child run away from home in a fit of anger and take the train to the big city. More predators lie in wait. These children are unaware of their rights and become easy prey. What is shocking is that often it is people like us, who are aware of laws and rights, who employ children in their homes as a child is again less demanding, easier to handle etc.

Children now have the right to education though many will grow into adults before this right is truly implemented. A few raids will not put an end to child labour. In a recent interview the Chief Minister of Delhi was asked: Why are you allowing child labour at Commonwealth Games-related sites? Her answer was perplexing: I entirely agree that there should be no child labour, but these children were abandoned by the states they come from and also by their parents. They have moved to a bigger city only to get jobs that pay. But come to think about it is it really perplexing or is it the reality and the CM was aware of the magnitude of the problem and that paucity of available options.

A friend who is privy to the inside functioning of the powers that be, told me that she had once been told, quite candidly, by labour officers and social workers that they often turn a blind eye when faced with cases of 14 or 15 years old working. They simply ascertained that the child was well treated. This seemingly incomprehensible and 'illegal' action stemmed out of the fact that they knew that they had no better option to offer. To my mind they acted with sensitivity and understanding.

Laws need to be humane and need to address core issues. Child Labour is not an offense like murder. It stems out of need, hunger, desperation and is a means of survival. If we want to put an end to what we call consider an aberration, then we need to come up with valid alternatives that work.