Societal indifference fosters child labour

CHENNAI, APRIL 29. Child labourers in Chennai are employed in slaughter houses, mechanic sheds, hotels, tea shops, wine shops and in households, places where people come in contact with them everyday.

Deprivation of children's rights, then, is less due to lack of awareness, but because ``society has accepted child labour as a norm,'' says Mr.G. Ranganathan, co-ordinator, Child Line, Shenoy Nagar. ``This makes handling the issue that much tougher.''

More than 14,000 child labourers were employed in the city as per a 1998 survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB).

An indication of societal indifference was shown last year in a study, which revealed that 26 per cent of child domestic servants in Chennai were working in homes of government employees. This, despite both the State and Central Governments prohibiting their staff from employing children below 14.

Child labourers are also employed in steel manufacturing, leather and export garment units, for beedi making and construction work, and by fishing communities.

But contrary to popular conception, poverty is not the main cause for child labour, at least in metropolitan areas, says Mr.S. Balachandran, community officer, TNSCB. He says parents' attitude, misuse of meagre incomes, broken families and migration are the main reasons.

``A child contributes only Rs.5 to Rs.10 a day to the family. He works for the extra money, which usually goes to beedis or arrack. Some children work in mechanic sheds to learn a skill than to earn money,'' he says. ``Poverty is mainly an artificial factor in cities.''

Denying that parents force their children to work, Mr. Balachandran said, ``Some parents don't even know if their children are going to school or work. They would prefer their children to study.''

However, intentions aside, many factors force parents to engage their children in work.

In most cases, alcoholism and drug abuse are the main contributors to family pressures. P. Venkatesh's mother had to sell a kidney to get away from her husband, an alcoholic, and start a new life for herself and her son. However, with just one kidney, she had to eventually give up working, leaving Venkatesh with no option but to work.

Children also migrate to the city in search of work. Sarvana, hailing from a village near Madurai, was brought to Chennai by a neighbour to work in a meat shop. He was abandoned and brought to Child Line by an autorickshaw driver.

Some are star-struck. ``Recently, three girls had came to Chennai to work as domestic servants in households of film stars,'' Mr.Ranganathan said.

Disability of parents is another factor. Kadirvel, whose father was disabled in an accident, wanted to study, but had to drop out of school.

Also, employers find it economical and easy to engage children. For starters, they have no trade unions, their wages are low, they cannot complain and have to do all that the employers ask them.

The Child Labour Act contains provisions for fining and imprisoning employers of child labourers in prohibited sectors or hazardous industries. ``The law can enforce action on these employers, but realities are different,'' says Mr.Ranganathan.

``When I went to an eatery on a complaint of child abuse, the boy said his employer was God to him and had saved him from poverty. I could only advise them.''

Many of these children suffer permanent psychological scars. Bhuvaneswari, who worked as a domestic servant in a village near Tiruchi, described how her parents, both alcoholics, committed suicide. She was here because her employers put her in a bus headed for Chennai asking her to find work here.

Asked if she wanted to study, she brightened up, ``I can study nicely. I have studied till class one.''

The TNSCB was sanctioned Rs.one crore in 1996 for a Child Labour Elimination Project (CLEP) aimed at eliminating child labour in a phased manner. The TNSCB aims to eliminate the menace by 2005.

The project pools the efforts of NGOs, the Chennai Corporation and other agencies. A major component of the CLEP is transit schools, where children below 14 are accepted as students after screening. The schools ensure that the students are kept away from work, and tries to help them forget their past and inculcate in them that school is a place to enjoy.

There are 42 transit schools in Chennai, with a maximum of 25 students in each. They have benefitted 4,700 students, including Sarvana, Kadirvel and Venkatesh, since the project started in 1997-98.

But it is only a minor effort whereas a more comprehensive approach is needed.

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