Ananthapriya Subramanian is an independent writer with keen interest in humanitarian issues. After working for over 10 years as an award-winning journalist and following a shorter stint leading communications in the development sector, she is, for the moment, content observing trends in the development sector landscape. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every time I walk past the shop selling household items in a posh South Delhi market, I feel a twinge of guilt. This guilt tinged with a trace of shame is impotent. Two boys, who cannot be older than 12 or 13, work in this shop. Often, when I see them, I think of dialling either the police or the child help line. And then what, I ask myself. I might feel selfishly better that I took action on witnessing child labour but am I doing the children a favour by playing a role in rescuing them? Perhaps not.
Having worked with a child rights organisation, I have often despaired at the ineptitude and remoteness of our child welfare system. Once 'rescued' from labour, the child, in theory, ought to be rehabilitated. This means adequate compensation, getting the child back to the family or community and, if the child's family is poor, which is the case anyway, then ensuring that their parents have access to some form of social security. But reality is far from a happy ending for rescued child labourers. More often than not, they do not receive any compensation. Worse, since they usually have no proof of age, the employers are let off and the children left with no option but to look for another job. Even more sickening is the stench of child abuse coming out of welfare homes which are meant to be a safe refuge for such children. NGOs that thrive by 'rescuing' child labourers do little by way of ensuring their rehabilitation. Once the media headlines fade, there is little follow up.
Does this mean I condone child labour? Not at all. The Government's recent decision to amend the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act (CLPRA), 1986, to ban all forms of child labour up to the age of 14 bringing it in line with the Right to Education Act is a welcome, if long overdue, step.
This means that all children aged 14 and below will now be able to go to elementary school as guaranteed by the Constitution and should not have to go to work. But this Government (or for that matter previous governments) has shown little interest in doing something for a constituency which comprises close to 40 per cent of the population. If I am being cynical, then pray tell me how many prosecutions and how many convictions have there been under the CLPRA? Four convictions under the CLPRA between 2007 and 2009 by the Government's own admission! According to civil society estimates, close to 60 million children under the age of 14 are engaged in child labour. And we have four convictions?
We have seen articulate members of the government make a defence of child labour, claiming that traditional skills had to be preserved, hence, children needed to work. This is, by the way, a perpetuation of the 'nimble hands make better craftsmen' myth. For years India has resisted ratifying ILO Convention 182 which seeks to eliminate the worst forms of child labour. The excuse has been that 'the poor need child labour' as infamously argued by Kaushik Basu. For far too long, the excuse of poverty has been trotted out as a reason for continuing child labour. If I, an individual, say that, it is pathetic but if the Government uses the same line, it is morally abhorrent and inexcusable. Poverty is the reason for child labour and child labour, in turn, perpetuates poverty. And what do policymakers in charge of removing the blight of poverty do? They quibble over definitions of poverty, who should be below the poverty line and hence receive entitlements! In effect, more of the poor are stripped of their only reality, being poor!
And how is this new amended Act going to deter the Great Indian Middle Class, who, despite knowing the law, continues to employ young children as domestic help, and worse, mistreat them? Hundreds of thousands of children are employed as domestic help in middle-class homes across India; this is one of the most insidious forms of child labour as it is invisible and hidden from the public gaze. Recognising it as such, the CLPRA had in 2006 banned the employment of children aged 14 and under in homes as domestic help. Yet, how many child domestic workers have been rescued and rehabilitated?
Good intentions mean nothing unless these are backed by the will to erase the reality of dehumanising child labour. It is meaningless to have laws while there is no interest to enforce it. While the track record thus far has been abysmal, it is tempting to have faith for the future where the amended CLPRA kicks in with vigour and the RTE succeeds in upholding the Constitutional guarantee in letter and spirit. I am willing to give the cynic in me an early demise but then laws will not stop child labour, only we can.