This is the story of Ashish (name changed to preserve anonymity) a highly vocal, progressive and courageous 'President' of one of the student union societies at the North Campus during my college years (1990-93). Why his case is interesting is because he had started his life as a child laborer in one of those tribal villages in Maharashtra when he was 6, weaving carpets through the mornings and working in his father's fields in the latter half of the day.
Nothing unique about his lot, as countless Indian children in rural and urban areas are not sent to school so that they could help their family in the mad scramble to gather daily scraps for their table.
Ashish, however, was blessed with incredibly dexterous limbs. He churned out as many carpets a day as 8 other children totaled in two. And he had an incredible I.Q. By sheer chance, he was noticed by a social activist protesting child labor in Maharashtra and his upward climb to the social cream began. Well fed and cared-for by the NGO, he left the family trade far behind and began a fervent pursuit of Social Politics in Delhi. He graduated with honors from Delhi's Hindu College, and is a voice for University Students with the local government today. Sheer chance!
One of India's frightening nightmares is the problem of child labor. Many measures and counter measures have been thought-of and developed but a socio-economic problem has to have a socio-economic solution. In spirit and on paper India does not encourage or condone exploitation of children, but how far has the government been able to curtail the practice? And how wise is the government in the decision to ban child labor?
Government figures say that child labor constitutes 3.6% of India's labor force. About 80 % of working children contribute to their family's traditional activities such as cultivation, agriculture, livestock handling, quarry, fisheries and forestry. The rest of them work in manufacturing, servicing, repairs and in factories. 8 % of the labor force in the carpet industry is constituted of children.
What else would you expect when there isn't a system of social welfare where there is assurance that the kids would be fed? Why shouldn't they work and feed themselves when their parents who cannot well afford to clothe themselves but blindly produce a cricket team to feed.
What right does the government have to ban child labor when they do not have the spine to introduce population control measure? Who will feed those kids if they go to school and their parents are working in the dingiest of atmospheres to gather barely enough food to feed themselves? Will the government ensure that the kids are fed as well as educated? Do they have the means to ensure this?
It's easy to make a law that it is illegal for people to employ children in hazardous industries. Is it difficult to make a law that population is controlled? Of there's the personal Muslim Law and the Roman Catholic antipathy to abortions and population control which might be an impediment! But is this the segment that is causing the explosion of population in India? How about countless others including national politicians who produce one child for each of the first 10 years of their marriage? Was Sanjay Gandhi's forced sterilization of the masses such an evil? Wouldn't it have terminally cured the ill we are facing today?
The Indian government's view on India's situation is completely micro focused and it is hurting the common man, and the uncommon man. What will the government do when we run out of food completely? I abhor the fact that the government gives no thought to where we are headed and when a sad reality like child labor stares them in the face they go ahead and ban it rather than rehabilitate countless hungry children.
The National Research Center on child labor works with international and national level organizations like ILO, UNICEF and local NGOs in implementing child labor programs. There is a strong voice against exploitation of children. How confidently the government went ahead and proclaimed, "No Child, male or female below the age of fourteen, shall be employed or permitted to work in any occupation having the possibility of health hazard... industries and/or trade... and is punishable under the law". But no mention was made of the destruction that is going to
be our lot if we continue producing children like amoebic multiplication.
The government has proclaimed a few other things, the fate of which is (as usual) hanging in limbo:
Every employer of children must pay $533 per child towards a " Child Labor Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund".
The interest from the corpus of this fund will be given to the child's family on condition that the child is sent to school.
In lieu of every child withdrawn from employment, an adult member of the family will be given employment, or in cases where that is not possible, the Government would have to pay $133 per child towards the rehabilitation fund. None of the above directives have ever been implemented or enforced.
The Government of India has resolved to eradicate child labor completely by the beginning of the 21st century. That's a praiseworthy sentiment, but how would they feed the children who live below poverty line and work to eat?
An International program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) has been launched to look after children rescued from child labor. Yes, that's true. The children have been rescued, and rehabilitated, but how about the countless others languishing in dark factories, working with fire and doing other work while they should be out playing under the sun? Can the government rehabilitate all of them? Where are the means? Can we keep multiplying the means while the illiterate masses keep multiplying their families?
Under the National Child Labor Project, the Ministry of Labor has set up 20 special schools in the carpet producing belts. They provide education, mid-day meals, and a monthly stipend to children withdrawn from the industry. And in order not to burden families from which these children are withdrawn, the Government provides training to the parents of these children. There is some sporadic good that has come of this project, but it is well-thought-out programs that need to be undertaken rather than the 'commandment' attitude the government has about uncomfortable issues.
But most of the projects have failed to understand the problem of child labor. Contrary to what the entire world likes to believe of India, child labor in a socio-economically impoverished country is not the consequence of apathy on the part of the parents and the society, it's a direct result of poverty. To move those sorry children out of the factories they work in, they have to be assured of a good economic situation. And to assure them this, there have to be enough means that could be distributed amongst them. And the means are depleting with rapidly increasing hungry people. In an average lower class household, more hands mean more mouths to feed but more than that they mean more money. So why shouldn't they look out for themselves and their hungry stomachs?