Child labour is, even today, a social issue of staggering magnitude, with a disturbing 14.4% of Indian children still employed in various forms of labour. Prof. Shantha Sinha, one of the nation’s leading child labour activists, speaks to ParentCircle about the hard truths of this issue.
Q: Child labour has been a huge social concern in India for many years now. How does the situation look today in comparison with, say, a decade ago?
A: Statistics reveal that the situation today is much better than it was ten years back. I don’t have the exact figures, but since our last census in 2001 there is definitely a vast measure of improvement. For instance, we know that the enrolment of such children in schools has picked up aggressively while there has been a marked decrease in the number of dropouts. However, in the light of these improvements, there is also a lot of invisibilisation that occurs with respect to ongoing practices that employ child labour. What has happened is that, while the census talks about the reduction in the number of children among the main and marginal workers, it doesn’t count the invisible work that children render in home-based manufacturing units and the number of hours they spend doing so. Even today, many such units are backed by the labour of young children whose families are paid piece rates. We are talking about work that is done before and after school hours, and sometimes even through the night. Rolling beedis, doing zari embroidery or weaving carpets – the work is varied and compensation a mere piece rate. This is not only exploitation but also a compromise on children’s education and school activities. After all, if they are working before and after school hours how will they participate and perform in school? Our children have time to do homework, go out to play, attend special classes for music and pursue other extra-curricular activities. Whereas these children are bereft of the chance of experiencing the little joys and frivolities of a childhood that everyone has the right to.
Q: What, according to you, are the most effective policies that have been put in place to fight child labour? What additional policies do you think could make a difference in future?
A: Unfortunately, the policies that have been drafted to fight child labour till date have been very weak. This is because the law is weak. Policies are put in place to implement the law. Sadly, the law itself does not abolish child labour in all forms. It makes a distinction between processes and occupations that are prohibitive and those that are not prohibitive. Again, those processes that are not prohibitive run into thousands and are totally ignored by law. For example, just two months ago, in Hyderabad, about 300 children were rescued from bangle-making outfits. These were children who had been brought from Bihar to work in such units. It should be noted that employing children in bangle-making units is not banned by the law. Therefore, I would say that, in a way, child labour law legitimises child labour. How so? Because by prohibiting child labour only in certain identified units, the law indirectly suggests that in all other processes and occupations, child labour is legal.
Q: Yes, there has been a recent buzz about the government’s plan to relax child labour laws for children under 14 working in family-run businesses. Don’t you think that something like this could be easily used and abused?
A: Absolutely! It is shocking and so pro-business. For example, when child labour in the carpet industry was prohibited under the Child Labour Act, children continued to work in home-based units. So the looms went to the homes of workers and their families, resulting in invisibilisation of child labour. What we need, instead, is to make things visible. We should ensure that all forms of work comply with the labour laws. We should not encourage or legalise 24/7 piece rate work at home.
Q: What about rehabilitation? When children are rescued from the claws of labour, they often seem to go back to the system. Coming as they do from extreme poverty, the truth is, maybe the money for a meal is more important than education.
A: Both rehabilitation and rescue efforts have to go hand-in-hand and continuously. To elaborate, the government responds only when there is constant pressure. Not when rescue operations take place like an allergic rash - suddenly and sporadically! Going back to the bangle factory issue in Hyderabad, the police acknowledged that there were about 4000 children working in bangle-making units. So why were only 300 children rescued? This, when they know where these children are and what conditions they are working under. You can’t allow things to cool off with excuses about rehabilitation not being effective. Yes, rehabilitation is an issue. But you should take the rescue operation seriously and continuously keep at your efforts of rescuing. The result would be better processes of rehabilitation. When we first started raising our voices against child labour, we were asked by parents, “Why should we put our children in school when the quality of education is quite poor?” We found that by building up pressure on schools with a massive release of child labour, there was a demand for education and improvement in the quality of education. Anticipating the next set of problems only leads to avoiding any action. Big changes won’t happen overnight. It will have to be pressure, pressure and more pressure. When you rescue 4000 children, the government will either buckle under or sit up and react.
Q: What sort of awareness programmes are required to tackle this issue? How much of a part does counselling parents play in keeping children out of this rut?
A: I don’t really think that parents are the ones that need to be counselled. The pressure to get children to work does not come from parents. It comes from employers who want cheap labour. To them, children are a source of cheap labour and can be forced to work for long hours. Earlier there was a complaint about feminisation of work. This was because the cost of the female work force was much lower than their male counterparts’. Now child labour is replacing the female work force because their labour is still cheaper. Parents below the poverty line want their children to pursue studies, as they see education as the only means to break away from the cycle of poverty and deprivation. But at the same time they also feel that, given their low economic status, children have to work so that they can contribute to the family kitty. We know that there has been a great decrease in child labour from 2001 to the present. This poses a question – Is it because of the measures taken by the government to arrest this evil? No. The fact is that there is an enormous demand for education now. Parents want their children to go to school. Anyone who says otherwise is looking for excuses to propagate child labour.
Q: Kailash Satyarthi winning the Nobel Prize has brought a lot of attention to the dire state of affairs in the context of Child Rights in India. Do you think this interest will make a difference to the state of affairs in future?
A: I really hope that this award brings in the kind of pressure we need to combat Child Labour. Thanks to the Nobel Prize, the issue of exploitation of children will gain better visibility now. It will also help hasten the steps to be taken by policy makers. For example, an amendment to the child labour law is still pending. This proposed amendment seeks to ban all forms of child labour for all children below the age of 14, making no distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous occupations. It also seeks to abolish child labour between the ages of 15 and 18 making slight allowances for non-prohibitive work. This amendment was supposed to have been presented at the budget session in March 2015, but it got postponed to April. Now we are told that it will be presented at the winter session. I do hope Kailash Satyarthi is able to make his voice heard to get the law amended at the earliest.
Q: What do you think huge multinationals should do to set in place policies regarding their outsourced work, so as to prevent contractors from engaging child labourers?
A: There need to be clear-cut policies and agenda wherein the entire supply chain is the responsibility of the company. So, if a single child is being exploited at any stage or by any subcontractor, the company should be held liable for the same. They should not be able to claim that they have nothing to do with it, having outsourced it. Binding contracts to weed out employment of children should go to the very end of the supply chain.
Q: The government allocates funds for NGOs. Do you think local bodies utilise these funds appropriately?
A: The problem is not with the funds but with the allocation of roles. There are no roles assigned to any of the local bodies for organised and effective measures to be met. This is very unfortunate. The National Child Labour Programme has no role for the Gram Panchayat. In fact, that is the biggest flaw in the National Child Labour Programme (NCLP). It runs schools for rescued children through NGOs. But they are not authorised to run these schools. This is because only the Education Department is authorised to run schools since the enactment of the RTE Act. Regarding the role of the Labour Department, they should be rescuing children who are employed, with the help of the police authorities. The actual need is to enforce laws on child labour and render justice to children.