“I Work So My Mother Doesn’t Have To”: Tackling Child Labour In India

“Main isliye kama rahi hu, taaki maa ko mehnat na karni pade (I am earning, so that my mother doesn’t have to),” said Prerna, who is the daughter of a domestic worker and has been working ever since she was 10. She is based out of Mumbai and did go to school. However, her circumstances were such that she could not continue her education and decided to drop out after 8th standard.

In the most extreme forms, child labour involves being engaged in hazardous work, being enslaved, exposed to severe illness and left to fend for themselves.

Speaking of highlighting a grave issue like child labour, the Indian Cinema and in particular, the Hindi Cinema, which is somewhat a powerful tool in influencing a large section of the audience, has come out and spoken of the dangers of child labour through many movies.

The movie Salaam Bombay is one such movie which depicted child labour back in 1988, where the stars of the movie were street children. It depicted their daily struggles, what can go wrong once you enter the world of employment at a young age and how easily one can get pulled into the world of drugs and trafficking.

Older movies like Boot Polish (1950) and Dosti (1954) have also placed child labour as the central theme of the story and shown the emotional narratives of children.

Although these movies were released nearly 70 years ago, we still seem to be having the same conversations about child labour and the situation has only seemed to worsen over the past years. Even today, there are 168 million children trapped in child labour and over 75 million young children aged between 15–24 who do not receive any kind of income, social protection or security.

The problem of child labour is truly multi-faceted.

In the context of India itself, there exist wide differences regionally in the magnitude of child labour that needs to be assessed thoroughly with appropriate state-policy interventions. The problem of child labour is truly multi-faceted and needs to be looked at through different lenses which operate within the complex framework of socio-cultural specificities.

Cross Country Perspectives

So far, we have only spoken of India, but the problem is not limited just to India; it’s been a serious problem for the rest of the world for a very long period. Everywhere, children get exposed to many problems in their day-to-day life and child labour has been considered one of the major hurdles in the development of a country.

For this purpose, the United Nations has pledged to end child labour by 2025 and some countries and global advocates are trying to push for the same.

For instance, our neighbouring country Nepal has decided to stop employing children in brick kilns that used to employ around 3,00,000 children. In fact, Nepal has been highly committed to ending all forms of child labour.

Also, a country like Norway is working quite extensively to combat child labour by implementing various child protection measures such as free healthcare, creating a safe environment along with some effective labour market measures. Measures such as these function as contributing factors in realising a child’s fundamental rights.

In Europe and North America, child labour was quite prevalent in the 19th century but eventually reduced towards the beginning of the 20th century. This was so because industrialisation in the West led to an increase in demand for child labour and, in due course, also led to its elimination. Children worked not just in industries but also in retail stores, street shops and in home-based industries.

The issue of child labour is persistent in India.

The situation in Asia and specifically in India has not been very different, but historically speaking, the problem of children working from a young age has been quite persistent from long before the 19th century.

Even though legislation began getting formulated only in the 20th century, it mostly failed. It was only in 1977, in Lakshmi Kant Pandey vs. Union of India, that the Supreme Court in India recognised and drew attention to domestic bonded service and slavery of children and issued mandatory guidelines for adopting active services to abolish the same.

What Does The Law Say?

Based on the recommendations of the Gurupadaswamy Committee, the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986. As per the Act, employment of children was prohibited in certain specified hazardous occupations and processes, and it regulates the working conditions in others.

In 2016, the Act was amended to prohibit the employment of children below 14 years in all sectors and also adolescents between the age group of 14–18 in hazardous areas.

When the judiciary took the decision to penalise child labour in 1986, it did more harm than good. It was not only unsuccessful in eradicating child labour but also invisibilised the same by pushing children into arenas that are not tapped into.

It opened a new avenue wherein children were engaged in sites that wouldn’t be in the ambit of monitoring. Children are moving into sex work and there is no way to find out where they are.

Children are also employed in hazardous conditions.

To begin with, domestic work is considered one of the most invisible forms of child labour as it is hidden, which leads to exploitation, such as keeping selected working hours for children to work in and giving them low wages.

Ms Nishita Khajane from Concerned for Working Children said that in her area of work, she noticed that many children spend the same hours working as the adults do but are still paid less and, thus, cannot afford even basic education with that money.

The children that CWC engages with are mostly in the age group of 15–18 years of age and they do work in hazardous conditions; there are dangers of snake bites or working on construction sites has caused harm to them.

“I may not have a chance to continue my education, although I want to continue education because of high expectations from my teachers,” said Sangi (13 years), living in the Aizawl district of Mizoram.

Even though education is important and children want to study further, it is also important to have measures for employment generation. Learning new skills and ensuring that children can earn through a formal source of income is also education.

Many women feel that they need to learn to tailor because it not only provides them with a better job opportunity but also makes sure they get a better marriage prospect.

As much as education is important, so are undertaking measures for employment generation. (Source: flickr)

Education is not the only answer to child labour. It is a blanket statement. Children are also subject to physical exploitation when they are working, but there is no proper counselling facility to guide them through this.

Some of the needs of children are vocational training, skill development, evening schools, health care services such as regular check-ups and food security in schools. One also needs to keep in mind that child labour is not at all a homogeneous category and, thus, keeping a one-track mind approach is not the solution.

While the provision of free and quality education can be one of the approaches to resolving child labour, it is much more of a layered problem that needs to be tackled differently.

What Can We Do About It?

The policies that will work for a developed country will not work for a developing country like India, as the problems associated with child labour are different.

As much as education is important, so are undertaking measures for employment generation. According to Ms Nishita Khajane from CWC, “Adolescents and young children do need skills-based training such as vocational training, tailoring, etc., as they will also get better employment opportunities in the future. 

“This will provide some level of social protection. Social protection facilities such as observation homes are not at all useful. The idea of ‘raid and rescue’ is not working and never worked as well because this exercise is not done in a child friendly manner. 

“There is no holistic development in observation homes. The officials sometimes pick up any random child and keep them in observation homes. They refuse to listen to the child’s parents, thus, causing mental trauma.”

Food security is essential to combat child labour.

From my conversations with Ms Khajane from CWC and other stakeholders, I have understood that a decision or a policy change should be made at a needs-based level by bringing in reforms at the most basic level, such as Panchayats or introducing district level programmes because the needs of each district are different from the other. This has to come in only by consulting children.

In the year 2021, Tamil Nadu took a decision to strengthen its child protection policies in Panchayats and urban bodies and also create child safe spaces with a special focus on mental health and psychosocial support. A decision was taken with a view to initiate a policy in collaboration with children.

In many ways, Tamil Nadu has been ahead in ensuring child rights are protected and has been fairly performing well. Two things from a policy perspective that can be done are a needs-based approach in consultation with the working children and handing the agency into the hands of the children as they know what is best for them.

Child labour exists because society has just accepted it and become complacent to it primarily by remaining silent—silence also speaks volumes. Consumers worldwide demand products and services which are lower in price and employers would any day prefer cheap labour.

The one thing that we as concerned individuals can do is be mindful of our own actions and refuse to accept things—not in shops, not at home, not in the products we purchase.

Consumers and the privileged group who have some sort of education and awareness can become the driving force of eradicating child labour by raising awareness, questioning the ones employing children and demanding transparency in actions.

Every child deserves a childhood, and with the right policy and action, we can ensure they get one.

Some names have been changed to protect identity.

By Shiboni Sundar

This article was originally published on Youth Ki Awaaz on June 10, 2022 hereIt has been written by Shiboni Sundar.

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