Neo-liberal economic policies and the resulting culture of consumerism have aggravated the predicament of a growing number of school drop-outs and child labourers in Virudhunagar, Sivakasi, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli regions, according to a study, titled ‘In Search of Childhood’.
The study, conducted by the Centre for Education Development and Research (CEDAR) in partnership with the British High Commission and Tamil Nadu Women Development Corporation, has found that attitudinal changes among the rural population, especially in these regions, and an emerging youth subculture oriented towards consumer gadgets drive them to easy forms of employment.
The study covered 4,685 children and 5,000 households in 144 villages in four blocks — Sivakasi, Sattur, Kovilpatti and Melaneelithanallur near Tirunelveli.
T.Chinnaraj Joseph Jaikumar, a sociologist and author of the report, said the practice of parents taking cash advances from manufacturing units provided the background to children getting into part-time labour and slowly shifting to full-time work. The study revealed the tendency of poor households using cash advances for buying consumer goods such as TV s , DVD players, wet grinders and refrigerators. It also found children, especially boys, using their earnings to buy cell phones, electronic goods or spending on visits to nearby towns for entertainment. More than compulsion of poverty, it was attitude that forced children into work, Mr.Jaikumar said.
Of the total number of child labourers in the 15-18 age group, 17.83 per cent are estimated to be school dropouts.
Giving a caste-wise breakup, Mr.Jaikumar said about 11.5 per cent of the child labourers belonged to the Backward Classes, 40.7 per cent to the Most Backward Classes, 46.9 to the Scheduled Castes and 0.6 Scheduled Tribes.
Abolition of full-time child labour in the 6-14 age group had almost been achieved. Out of 15, 514 children in the age group enumerated in the four blocks, only 225 (1.5 per cent) were out of school and possibly engaged in full-time work, said the study. The part-time child labour had a pattern of children getting employed in homestead production of safety matches after school hours. Outdoor employment included minor agricultural operations, it added.
In 2012, it was found that 35 out of 40 villages in Kovilpatti block, 13 out of 16 in Sattur, 24 out of 40 in Sivakasi and 20 out of 40 in Melaneelithanallur block, witnessed part-time child labour.
Another important aspect highlighted by the study was ‘Sumangali thittam’ of mills under which jobs were provided to unmarried, adolescent girls compulsorily for three years. The phenomenon, which started a few years ago, seemed to be spreading fast. Appalling economic conditions and social discrimination were the factors that forced them, especially Dalit girls, to drop out of school and enter the web of bonded labour, the study underlined.
A few villagers said they had to send their children to cities to avoid caste discrimination and they used this opportunity to end dependency on dominant castes. The weak economic platform provided by agricultural labour, coupled with the seasonal nature of farm work, complicated the situation. The lobby of agents mainly lured the SC and MBC girls.
An estimate by CEDAR said 181 girls were found to have fallen prey to such lobbies — 73 in Kovilpatti - Sattur region, 30 in Sivakasi and 78 Melaneelithanallur. The industrial towns where the Sumangali scheme was active were Coimbatore, Tirupur and Sivakasi, the study concluded.