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Burdening young lives

Many plans and policies later, child labour remains familiar and inevitable. Existing laws have to be radically amended to address the structural problems associated with it, writes PADMINI DEVARAJAN.


THE strangest thing about child labour is how familiar and inevitable it is, despite multi-pronged crusades by government legislations, non-governmental agencies and awareness programmes through media and literature. According to the International Labour Organisation, whole generations of children are being deprived of the chance to take their rightful place in the society and economy of the 21st Century. If recruitment of new child workers ends now, child labour will disappear in a decade.

But the reality is that the situation has been worsening, with one in every eight children in the world being exposed to the worst forms of child labour which endangers the child's physical, mental or moral well-being.

It is quite common to chance on children with two starkly different lifestyles while walking down any street in India. The extent of child labour in India is at an all time high compared with the incidence worldwide. By integrating the underlying causes with the experiences and strategies of individual activities and projects to arrive at long-term solutions to fight child labour, a wider development agenda is constantly evolving. As in the case of anti-dowry laws, or any other social law, the implementation becomes a crucial and challenging task.

Since child labour is a consequence of social and economic conditions, it has become a central issue for researchers, international agencies and organisations including trade unions on a global scale. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), along with other global trade union partners, has been strongly endorsing the right to education for every child and pressing for a clear commitment to eradicating all forms of child labourIn India, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been working to expedite the amendment of the laws regarding child labour and set a time frame to achieve free and compulsory education for the children in collaboration with the State Governments. These laws have to be radically re-thought and re-written from the perspective of the rights of the child, in terms of policy and accountability.

Child rights and child welfare are distinctly different concepts. Welfare projects can deal with noon meals, and humanise working conditions for child labourers, but may not address the structural problems of the violation of childhood or provide protection from exploitation. The Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) includes protection rights, survival and development rights, and participation rights. It implies protection from oppression, state accountability to people or human wellbeing in terms of personal security, access to health, education, nutrition and all basic needs. In the Indian context, enforcement and implementation of laws depends on awareness, and in building the enforcement strategies. This year's Magsaysay award to Shanta Sinha's achievement only reinforces the long road to be covered. As secretary of the M.V. Foundation, for 12 years, she has been involved in setting up a string of bridge schools across 491 villages of the educationally backward Ranga Reddy district that has helped over 1,00,000 children in the five-14 age group enter mainstream schools.

"The problem needs to be tackled by awareness via education. This in turn empowers individuals to identify and cope with the existing situation", says Andal Damodaran, Secretary, Indian Council For Child Welfare (ICCW). She is as enthusiastic as Sinha about two projects successfully implemented by the ICCW in Vellore and Srivilliputhur. Last year about 300 children who had been working in the match industry in Srivilliputhur, and about 100 children who were bidi workers in Vellore had been put in schools. In Chennai, this organisation has rehabilitated street children and child beggars.

Recently, the Union Minister for Labour, Sahib Singh Verma, announced that the successful Child Labour Elimination Programme, currently implemented in 100 districts in Tamil Nadu, would be extended to 200 districts. If social security were provided for the unorganised sector it could help in the battle against child labour, and also help tackle the population problem through education. Child labour keeps children out of school and is a major barrier to development. To make the anti-child labour law a reality, poverty and unemployment need to be eliminated. Unless the standard of living improves at the lower levels of society, children will be forced to work.

It is heartening to read frequent news reports that either the District Collector or the police track the complaints on child labour in commercial establishments, hotels, tea shops, garages and implement the Child Labour Abolition Act to release the children and also arrange for admitting them in schools. Organisations like Child Line, or phone-in rescue and rehabilitation networks for children in distress respond to tip offs and complaints. Some rehabilitated child labourers have claimed that schooling has helped them hope for a better future.

However, in a majority of cases, rehabilitation efforts fail despite laws. Consider the requirement of the law that states that anyone under 14 years of age should not be forced to work, and also those below 14 should be given free and compulsory education. Many middle and upper middle class families do not hesitate to engage young boys or girls to help with household chores like cleaning the house, cars, and so on, or to do odd jobs for the household. The parents of the children who are sent to work in households need the money. The middle class employer assuages his conscience by feeling he is helping them by offering employment. So law gets hoodwinked into selective amnesia.

It is necessary to move beyond protests, impassioned seminars, street plays, and repeated messages through the media that may manage to bring a certain percentage of awareness, towards finding expression in practical programmes for every district, village and family.

It is important to keep the uneasy feeling, that these children bear a far greater burden than they can carry, alive in our social conscience.

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