Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
An endless tunnel?
Soon after seven-year-old Rishi handed over the tumbler of coffee, he ran for cover - the shadow that the stripped motorcycle had cast on the tar-topped road. To cajole the boy, blessed with an innocent smile and sparkling eyes, was not difficult. A brand-name chocolate woke up the child in him and out he came to confide his views - on education, work and life at home.
Rishi hates school, and he has been ushered into the world of mechanics by his cousin who realised that Rishi could add more to the sparse family kitty in the 14 years he would otherwise waste in the confines of an uninspiring classroom ruled by blinkered teachers. Rishi's father is a cook adept in southern delicacies but whose expertise is rarely called for. So he spends most of his time throwing tantrums at home. Rishi's mother washes the dishes of an affluent family, the sister spends each day at a cloth export unit for a weekly pittance (while parrying the paws of supervisors who try to extract more than her ability to stitch pretty clothes).
Rishi is lucky because the unstarred motorcycle service unit is one of the best in Chennai in quality of service and working conditions for its employees. The young proprietor has a keen eye for gold ore and Rishi promises to be pure gold soon. The deal is excellent by sectoral standards (two-wheeler servicing). Rishi will earn Rs. 20 a week once he can identify the tools by their code names.
This mechanic-to-be is one of the 77 million child workers in our nation who sweat it out every day. Observation shows that not a single child worker ever ceases to be a child. The burden of work ablates the chance of tantrums for a child worker matures sooner, but the work, no matter how demanding, never robs his spirit. Walking in groups down the road to work carrying tiny handwoven bags of food, ferrying cups of tea, fetching tools and vehicle parts often heavier than what an orthopaedician would recommend for their age, standing in waist-deep water planting paddy seedlings, making matchsticks or playing cello on the carpet weaving frame, the child workers everywhere are up to pranks - running, jumping, and laughing in addition to quicksilver response to commands.
The law of averages works well. Some are worse off than others. The glass bangle makers who work with molten material are a pitiable lot; so too are those who sit hunchbacked in steel vessel polishing units where the deafening roar of a 3 hp motor fails to stir the cloud of dust that hangs everywhere and sticks to the face and body like a coat of grey. The grey dust has another vessel at its disposal - the airsacs of young lungs.
"We are so used to child labour that we do not even notice it," said Ossie Fernandes of the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, Chennai, who is one of the many fighting this "deep-rooted evil." Ossie was right. It was not easy to keep the eyelids peeled and focussed to the reality of omnipresent child workers.
In addition to the hurdle of habit - of taking child labour for granted - reality seems to be multilayered. The plight and perspective of 70 year-old Habib, who shared his woes in-between bouts of cough that left him breathless, showed how ignorance aided exploitation. He began rolling bidis when he was eight, and after 62 years of service he gets Rs. 21 in hand every two days. Though the scheduled remuneration is Rs. 51 for rolling 1000 bidis, the deductions for provident fund, bonus and losses suffered during the process leaves less than half that amount to filter down to the desperate palms.
"My bosses change cars twice every month. They live in palaces. Cannot they share some of their profits with us? We are the ones who get them the profit," he justifies.
In addition to ignorance, which powers the flywheel of exploitation, there is total helplessness. The pittance that bidi workers earn forces them to rope in as many members of the family as possible - to raise the monthly income. A family of five active workers, including three children, would earn at the most Rs. 1575. After paying a rent of Rs. 300 for the hole they call their home, they are left with about Rs. 9 a day for each person for food and other expenses. As kerosene costs Rs. 12 a litre and fuelwood at least Rs. 5 a kg, and as a family of five requires about 30 kg of fuelwood or dungcakes and 10 litres of kerosene a month, it is left with little for food and nothing for medical expenses or clothing. The bidi workers are therefore at the mercy of agents who supply tobacco and tendu leaves, and disburses the wages when they collect the piles of bidis from each hut.
Manoj K. Jain
In any job children do, there is little empathy. Their plight is of little concern. The target is clear - to maximise the output per head. The reality, therefore, is hardly different from Dickens' "Hard Times".
Children working in the knitwear units of Tirupur seem to be the most blessed of the lot. A typical unit is large; the sewing machines and overlapping machines are well spaced out, the windows are large which obviate the need for electric lamps during the day. But there is not a single fan in the room. Needless to say, the proprietor's room is well ventilated, and often air-conditioned.
One cannot deny that despite all the heroics of legislation, child labour exists to this day. The ban imposed by some European nations on carpets woven by children has had a sobering impact, but the voice raised by the many non-government organisations has only swirled into a black hole from which no light can escape. Children therefore continue to work long hours for a living.
"There have been any number of laws against recruiting children in manufacturing processes," said a senior labour officer of Tamil Nadu. "Section 17 of the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act of 1947 states that children below 14 years cannot be employed. Section 67 of the Factories Act of 1948 states that "no child who has not completed his fourteenth year shall be required or allowed to work in any factory." Then there are the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 (section 24), and the Mines Act of 1952 (section 45), or section 24 of the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966. The Beedi Workers Act states unambiguously that "no child shall be required or allowed to work in any industrial premises." Note that there was no uniformity in the age of recruitment till the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 and the Supreme Court ruling in the M.C. Mehta vs. State of Tamil Nadu on December 10, 1996 which identified some hazardous processes and firmly banned employing children in them, regulated the use of child labour in listed activities and imposed fines on violators," said the officer.
The Supreme Court judgment of December 10, 1996 seems to offer a solution to the problem by penalising manufacturers who violate the statutory provisions of the Child Labour Act of 1986 as well as the clarifications by the apex court on December 10, 1996. Despite the impressive presentation, the lacunae in the judgment seem to be far too many. One of the glaring ones is the dependence on labour inspectors to identify the wrong doers. The apex court presumes that all the labour inspectors will discharge their duty honestly. This you will agree is a fairytale where money speaks, bends and silences.
The Bench, therefore seems to be unaware of reality. Is it feasible for any member of the full Bench to penetrate incognito or to gather information in person about the Chakravyuha that has been planned carefully and executed meticulously by those who employ child labour?
While recommending substitute jobs for adults in lieu of working children which the State is to provide, the apex court in its judgment states, that "We are not issuing any direction to do so presently. Instead, we leave the matter to be sorted out by the appropriate Government." The suggestion seems reasonable, given a democratic set-up and that a stiff directive could upset the financial system of some States. But it also leaves an endless rope for States to postpone any active role in solving the problem.
The court states while commenting on the Child Labour Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund, that "even if no employment would be provided, the parent/guardian shall have to see that his child is spared from the requirement to do the job, as an alternative source of income would have become available to him." This too seems a fairytale solution. How is the benefit to accrue to the family from the corpus fund?
Even if the sum were invested in one of the fly-by-night finance companies, at an attractive interest rate of 36 per cent per annum, a corpus fund of Rs. 50,000 for a child withdrawn from the labour market would hardly be an incentive in terms of interest accruals to motivate the parent to wean the child from the job. The interest payment is highlighted by the apex court in paragraph 31 (5). In addition, the child-specific benefits would not help the family directly. Therefore there would be no motivation to withdraw the child from the labour market.
The helplessness of the apex court is best captured in its own admission in paragraph 34, that "We part with the fond hope that the closing years of the twentieth century would see us keeping the promise made to our children by our constitution about half-century ago. Let the child of the twenty-first century find himself into that 'heaven of freedom' of which our poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore has spoken in 'Gitanjali'."
The concluding paragraph is highly readable and impressive but a fantasy nevertheless. The apex court, despite its genuine concern for child labourers, seems, though unfortunately so, to have indulged in poetic fantasy, far removed from the complex reality that defies a feasible solution.
Even though the Constitution states in article 39 - one of the many in the Directive Principles of State Policy - that the States shall direct its policy to ensure "that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age and strength," children are forced by pure penury and their desperate parents to enter the job market.
You cannot deny that at the exalted level of the apex court and the prized corridors of legislatures, much concern is aired, and laws are made and amended to make them virtually foolproof, but the lacunae in enforcement remains.
It is because of the perforated system of enforcement that children continue to be used and abused. The walls of hosiery units of Tirupur have been raised by another few metres, and provisions made to smuggle out children in case of raids. The large units do not employ children, but voluminous export orders are honoured by dishing it out to smaller, distant units which recruit local children.
The story is no different in Sivakasi. A.M.S.G. Ashokan, managing director, of a unit which manufactures the "We Two" brand of fireworks, and exports safety matches vouched that the crackers industry does not employ child labour anymore. He admitted that small units making matchsticks employed children and that it was impossible to regulate them.
On any working day of the week, beginning at 6 a.m., you will find groups of children walking to the units at Tirupur. Your queries will not be answered as the children have been tutored to silence. Buses from Coimbatore are packed and you cannot fail to notice children occupying the space next to the driver. Local buses too touch the points where children disembark to reach the knitwear units.
It is because of the imperfect system of enforcement that carpet units in Uttar Pradesh, particularly Bhadohi in the eastern parts of the State, manage to employ children and avoid detection. A typical unit has the vertical weaving frame which faces the door. The workers sit in the pit behind the frame and play the music on the taut, lyre-like threads that would hold the knots of the carpet. The owners are a zealous lot, and often the volunteers of Campaign Against Child Labour cooperate with the owners to keep prying eyes out.
Joanna Van Gruisen/Fotomedia
When Harilal, a volunteer, hustled me out of a unit in Sudhwa village in a remote corner of Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh and refused to allow me to take photographs of children working at the carpet loom, he was protecting his own interest. He would have to continue his campaign against child labour and needed to win the trust of the loom owners.
The larger issue is, how is it that our country has suddenly woken up to the reality of child labour after all these years? Does it mean that child labour is a recent phenomenon? The answer is, you would agree, "no". Is the recent surge in anti-child labour campaign because we as a nation cannot use our heads to think or pinch our hearts to feel and must depend on the presumably civilised West to show us the way?
As every person associated with the eradication of child labour professes, it is a complex issue that requires a holistic approach. Compulsory enrolment in schools alone cannot eliminate child labour. Better wages for adults to motivate them to stop sending their children to work violates the basic principles of economics - to maximise profit, which is possible if and only if costs are minimised. After all the entrepreneur has little control over the price of his product, especially in the export market. This is the motive force behind child labour use.
Why is it that the country is blind to the agricultural sector where more than 85 per cent of all children are employed? Why is it that the Act of 1986 does not prevent family-based units from employing children? Can we transform the economy by a sleight of hand to turn it into a manufacturing giant and a force to reckon with in the world market? What about the standard of living of the majority and the much-publicised index of the quality of life? The product transformation function is mathematically elegant and convincing, as every student of economics knows. But every economist also knows that the path of real transition is more than bumpy, to say the least.
So, you will not be off the mark if you infer that laws impress when they are passed and they sometimes have immense literary value. The bottom line seems to be: as long as poverty remains, children will suffer. Promise of a good education is like the carrot and the stick... without the carrot at the end.
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