You can’t regulate child labour; you can’t regulate slavery. Somethings are just wrong wrote Michael Moore. And yet our Government has ‘tweaked’ the child labour law and now children under 14 can ‘work’ in family enterprises and the entertainment industry! To give itself good conscience the said Government proffers some weak caveats: provided the work is not hazardous; provided it is after school etc. I wonder what made these amendment necessary. Child labour of any kind is wrong and exploitative and a law such as this one is open to all kind of misinterpretations. Actually it simply legalises what has been happening and will make interventions to stop child labour quasi impossible. A child working in a tea shop will be termed as ‘family’, more so in a land where the definition of family is boundless. The child who may have been ‘sold’ or brought from the village as cheap labour, will now become family.
What is nothing short of abhorrent is that this law applies only to the poor; to the very children who need to be freed of all shackles that hijack their childhood. But now, with he stroke of a pen, the morrows of millions of children have been shattered. The surreptitious message that is being sent is: the farmer’s on will remain a farmer, the cobbler’s son a cobbler and so on. An image such as this one will be ‘legal’ as evidently these children’s parents must be construction worker which can now be termed ‘family business’. Yes I know there is the ‘hazardous’ caveat but then who decides what is hazardous work. I remember once seeing a three year old left by her mother in front a stove where milk was boiling. I guess the mother had instructed the child to watch the milk. What would the child have done had the milk boiled before the mother came back. The chances of the child sustaining burns were real, all it would have taken is some cat to topple the stove. And yet according to the new amendment the child was helping the mother in her domestic chores.
It is already a herculean task to implement the Right to Education Act and ensure that children go to school and stay in school till they are 14. The fact that it was ‘illegal’ not to send children to school was some sort of deterrent that we could brandish to parents to compel them to send their children to school. Now it will be difficult to counter the ‘family enterprise’ clause. Let me ask you a question. What do your children do on any given day. I guess a generic answer would be: they go to school, study, play, watch TV, play games etc. Then they also go on vacation, sometimes to exotic locales and attend birthday parties and so much more. Now if we are all protected by the same Constitution then why does this not apply to ALL children and if there is a disparity then why is not the duty of the state to ensure that all children enjoy the same rights. Why are poor children pushed to working after school and during vacations as is stipulated by the new amendment. Do poor kids not have the right to downtime?
It said the amendment seeks to strike a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic conditions. Now to my mind a socio-economic scenario that finds it acceptable for tiny hands to break stone, make match sticks or bangles – and yes these are kosher family enterprises – is skewed and needs to be changes. Such an absurd law seeks to perpetuate outdated and inhuman mores that have no place in a self respecting society. Every child needs to be given an enabling environment where she or he can grow and acquire new skills and options. You cannot condemn her or him to the plight of its parents. This amendment bangs all doors shut in the face of poor children.
A politician asked to defend this amendment during a debate yesterday came up with an absurd comment. She said that it would help discover talent. She was alluding to the ‘entertainment’ clause of the amendment that now allows children to participate in talent shows. But should not creative subjects like music and dance be part of the school curriculum and talent discovered within the safety of a well run school? And we are not talking of song and dance here, we are talking of stone breaking and carpet weaving in dark airless spaces.
Another defence, this time by the labour minister, said that this was a good way for children to strike a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic conditions. What the hell does that mean! That society has to remain frozen as it is, with the poor remaining poor and even poorer and the rich richer! I am flabbergasted so say the least. Here we are at project why celebrating when the child of a vegetable vendor completes her studies and gets a job in a bank and lurking around the corner is a law that would make it legal for her to sell vegetables when she finishes school and in the scorching sun during her summer break. Which ever way I look at this amendment, I cannot find ONE tiny point to defend it, more so when all political parties want us to believe that they are the Messiahs of the poor and down trodden.
Till a few months ago these adorable kids had never seen a book or held a pencil. Their parents are agricultural labour who grow vegetables on the bank of the Yamuna on land that belongs to landlords of the nearby Khader village. Till a few months ago they were working in the family business. Then arrived a teacher who decided to educate these children and give them a better start. Last month Project Why ‘adopted’ these kids and our main mission was to see how to mainstream them, a tough call as these kids have no civic identity. They simply do not exist. Earlier the teacher only taught them for an hour or so in the middle of the day. We decided to create a school like environment and teach them from 9 am to 3 pm with a midday meal. We were aware of the fact that these little hands were part of the said socio-economic conditions and provided added and needed labour. We were confident that with the laws on our side – Right to Education and Minimum Age for child labour – we had enough to convince the parents to send the children to the project from 9 to 3! Ah ha! Now with the new amendment should parliament pass sit – everything changes and we will be on shaky grounds.
The state does not have the resources to ensure that every child is in school. This is evident in the number of children we see working around us. And unlike my Yamuna kids who are invisible, the little kid who begs at the red light or the one who pushes a cart in the heat are VISIBLE. So before amending laws that would make these images legal provided they happen after school, would it not be better to first launch a campaign that pushes all kids into schools.
And I would like to ask the learned heads who conjured this inane amendment whether they would agree to their children working in their business after school giving up their homework time, play time, park time, siesta time, tennis classes, swim at the club and whatever else our kids under 14 do today! So a law that does not make sense and is highly unacceptable for YOUR kid cannot and should not be acceptable for any kid born in this country.