Somethings are just WRONG!

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.

A priceless painting

This may look like a very mediocre and even gauche piece of art. And yet for me it is priceless; more so because it landed in my life at the end of a tedious and annoying day.  Let me tell you why. True this piece or art, as art it is, looks like a banal copy of an illustration in a school book sone by a child and it is. But this is probably the first time this child was give crayons and a pice of paper to draw.

Yesterday the children of our Yamuna Centre had their first ART class and their teacher was none other than our own Aman, s student of our women centre who is an excellent artists and who was sent to Art classes by Project Why! As it is still early days, our resources are few but the heart is there. For  more than an hour these children who have never been to school and whose world fits in a fist took their first step on the creativity trail. They were enthralled and a tad bewildered. As children of agricultural labour, their life is limited to helping their parents as soon as they are able to do so. For some months now they have been studying a little but never have they been given the freedom to express themselves.

The child who  drew this picture lives in a thatched hut and has never seen a house like this one. Come to think of it many Indian kids have not seen a house like this one, with a chimney but you will find them draw them with alacrity as we still have illustrations that reek of colonial times. What is impressive is their ability to copy respecting proportions. The little lad who drew the boat ha need seen the sea; true he lives on the banks of the river, but a river that spews toxic foams and has grey waters. He may live his entire life without see in an ocean but he drew one with flair!

Every alternate day, the Yamuna Project children will have Art classes and I intend to ask Aman to let their imagination run, to give them the freedom to splash colours on paper as their heart desires. I will also ask him to let them draw what they see, the fields they grew up in, the vegetables they know from seed to fruit, something city kids do not.

 Let them draw the tree they sit under, the dwellings they live in, the lush fields they run in. Let their imagination grow will and let them enjoy simply being children.

rich and poor

The picture you see is one of our new ‘classroom’ in the Yamuna Project. Classroom is a misnomer even by our standards. Actually this space was a shed made for two jersey cows who have now gone to greener pastures. If you look carefully you will see that the walls are thatched and the floor terribly uneven and uncomfortable to sit on even with a mat. When we adopted this project, the first thing that came to mind was to try and level the floor by cementing it. It seemed reasonable. Ah Ha! But that is not the reality. We were quickly informed that getting even a brick in this place was illegal as this was hold your breath: the flood plain! You were only allowed to build with thatch and mud. Seems politically and ecologically correct and one would no have said anything if the ‘law’ applied to one and all. But that is not the case. The Akshardhama Temple and Commonwealth Games village are built on the flood plain of this very river, albeit on the there bank. So how does one circumvent laws. Simply by being rich and well connected. If you are poor it is thatch and thatch only.

All the children live in thatched structures where sizzling and freezing winds blow with alacrity. Only a plastic sheet protects from perpendicular rain, if the winds blow the thatched walls are no protection.

This is yet again another India Story where the laws are different for the rich and the poor. Actually one should say the laws are for the poor, the rich manage to circumvent it or pay their way through.

There is an amendment to an existing law on child labour which will, if passed, allow children to work in family enterprises to get an entrepreneurial spirit. These are not my words but those of a Minister in the Government. You need not be a rocket scientist to figure which children the law will affect. Not yours or mine but the million of children who are trafficked to provide cheap labour. What entrepreneurial spirit do you learn when you break bricks with your are parents who are bonded labour, fetch and carry with your construction labour parents or beg with your beggar parents. And then every industry that employs children can be tagged: family business be it carpet making, match stick making and eve housework! Maids do bring their daughters to ‘help’! The children it will not affect are ours as I do not see anyone ’employing’ ones kid in the family business.

No school for the rich runs in 2 shifts as it is well known and documented that children learn best in the morning hours yet boys from humbler homes go to school at 1pm in Government run schools. In spite of large tracts of land that could double or even triple the existing capacity, Government schools are still run in one storey tin roofed shacks. Who cares about poor kids. There is no need to give them an enabling environment to grow. They have no voice and nobody to take up the cudgels for them.  They will learn on uneven grounds and sizzling temperatures. That is the price to pay if you are poor.

The day may come where the not-one-brick rule will be broken with impunity and the vegetable fields will become a gated community for the rich and famous. Mark my words, it is only a matter of time.

And as none of the above affects us, except if you should chose to purchase a flat when they happen, we will keep shut. Our kids go to school in the morning, they sit in comfortable chairs and even an air conditioned classroom and they will learn the entrepreneurial spirit in some Ivy college in the US!

A whole new meaning…

I was taken aback this morning when I opened my mailbox to see a mail with the subject being: child labour. Imagine my absolute horror when I opened it and saw a petition to ask the Government to drop a proposed amendment to the child labour laws that would allow children below 14 to work in what they call ‘family enterprises’! It took me some time to process what I was seeing. I then searched the net to find out more and fell on an article very aptly titled: The Modi Government Is About to Make Child Labour Legal Again, And Has a Horrifying Reason To Justify It. I must confess that the rather toxic cocktail of heat+fever+work+IPL has impaired my access to news as news time is also cricket match time. I still do not know how I missed this one as I usually have a sound ear where children are concerned. Anyway before my rant and raves let me bring you to date with the intent of this horrific proposal. If the amendment is not shot down and I hope you will all join in helping doing so, then the hard work done in the field of child labour, work that has even been hailed by the Nobel Committee, is about to go down the drain as according to the amendment children under 14 till now protected by the existing law, will be allowed to work in ‘family enterprises’! And before you say anything let me enlighten you to the fact that ‘family enterprises’ include carpet-weaving, beedi-rolling, gem-polishing, lock-making and matchbox-making. And if that was not all, family enterprises also apply to entertainment and sports. The existing law + the Right to Education Act had entailed a drop in child labour from 12.6 million in 2001 to 4.3 million in 2014. Now, if we do not SCREAM and stop this aberration the figure will take quantum leaps. The girl child who is already deprived as is evident in the 64 against 82% literacy, will be kept home for housework and denied her right to education.

I can barely hold my rants but the article quoted above has some more horrendous justifications to this retrograde and inhuman amendment. According to the skewed rationale of our honourable minister of labour this will give kids an entrepreneurial spirit. But as the article caustically remarks not every tea vendor goes on to become PM. And come on the term: family enterprise is opened to every interpretation under the sun. Wily entrepreneurs will walk the whole nine yards to traffic children as cheap labour. A child activist painted the grim picture of what awaits children were this amendment passed: “All our campaigns to end bonded child labour, starting from the 1980s, will go up in smoke. Schools will be emptied out and poor children in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh will be back to working in sheds and makeshift factories that will all go by the nomenclature of family enterprises. The worst-hit will be the children of Dalits, Muslims, tribal families and those belonging to marginalised communities.”

I need to take a deep breath.

All the work we have done comes undone. True the laws were not implemented but for those of us who found our voice and indignation of a child working and reported the employer will now have no law to back us. This thoughtless amendment makes beggar children, dancing children, children working in tea shops and sweatshops legal as all these can be termed ‘family enterprises”.

The children in this picture also will be deemed legal as their families are construction labour. More pennies in the pockets of the contractor who can get them cheap. The list is endless, each more nightmarish than the other as by one stroke of the pen the state will legalise all forms of child labour. So hold on, are these not the children who also have a right to education till age 14? Then how does the equation work? It does not for me as  am one of those who believe that children should have a right to be educated all the way and even 14 is too young for them to work.

Children need to be nurtured, cared for, loved and educated. They have the rift to learn, to play, to laugh and even to do mischief. Any self respecting society should ensure that. Children working is a shameful blot on any society worth its salt. I cannot begin to fathom how such an amendment has even been thought of.

Made in India takes on a whole new meaning; this one is nothing short of unpalatable.

Let us for once raise our frozen and mute voices and ensure that this does not happen.

that would suffice!

 If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice wrote the German Mystic Meister Eckhart. It is almost frightening to see how easily we ‘rush’ to pray when faced with adversity often not quite knowing what to pray for and ask for the first thing that comes to our mind  guided by our hearts and not our reason, and though I am the one who has always propounded the importance of looking with your heart, I have learnt the hard way that when ‘seeking’ you must let the heart take a back seat and bring out reason. I remember praying hard for my father to ‘live’ after his brutal and barbaric surgery till the day when I saw his pain and suffering and the emptiness of his life with mama gone and we on the verge of leaving for Paris. In the state he was, there was no way he would resume a normal life: the surgeons had ensured that. So why was I praying for him to live. I reworded my prayer making only one option possible. I asked for either restoration of his perfect health or his release. He passed away 20 minutes later, having asked for his glasses to look at the picture of his wife that hung on the opposite wall. A smile touched his lips before he  exhaled his least breath.

That day I had found the exact wording for my prayer but you often never do.

Normally one remembers God and prays in time of strife and trouble, when our pet hubris fails us and a rude shock brings us to earth. Then one hurriedly conjures a prayer and sends it out. Far too often it is not the right one. Last week a dear friend and my staunchest supporter was in town and talked about the elusive pot of gold that someone has ‘promised’ to give us next year to build our sustainability programme. Neither of us truly believe in it as the same person held out one such pot some years ago and never gave it. But what came out of our little chat was also the danger of having too many strings attached to the pot, strings that may go against the spirit of project why we so cherish. So do you pray for the pot? For the pot without strings? For sustainability? The list is endless and the prayer loses its value.

Prayer has to be humbling. I remember the days when Ranjan was fading away and I was totally lost, my hubris trampled upon and all my carefully nurtured cartesian options an abysmal failure. Along the way I did pray and even held religious ceremonies meant to ward off bad times. But it is only when I reached the point of accepting to crawl on a filthy path to the sanctum sanctorum of a Goddess were she to grant me his health, that doors opened one after the other. I guess sometimes God does test you in his or her own inimitable way. I of course kept my side of the deal!

I did not turn the picture on its head; this is the way Agastya posed!

But there is another way to pray and get what you want without asking. That is to turn the whole matter of praying on its head. Do not ask for anything, just be grateful for everything you have been given and leave the rest to the One upstairs who knows better. That is the true meaning of Eckhart’s words: If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. We so often forget and take for granted the things we have been given with such magnanimity! If we did find that minute minute to say Thank You, the rest would follow. And if ask you must, leave it to children, God listens to them.