Now that India has ratified core International Labour Organisation Conventions 138 and 182 on child labour to fight against the menace and achieve the objective of a child labour-free country, how far does it go to serve the actual purpose?
This story is about Sajji. Mohammed Sajid if you will. He's only 13 but he has a job—to regulate the iconic ferry rides of Kolkata's Ahiritola Ghat? He runs to anchor the ferry to the dock by tying it with a rope. When the waters rise, he has to tie the rope tighter, and keep an eye out for the busy passengers so none of them fall into the river. He works for the whole time that the dockyard is active, rarely taking a break. After all, his salary ensures that his siblings are kept in school and are not forced into labour like him. Last year he migrated to Odisha to work with a cheap road-side hotel. The salary was fixed at ₹5000 a month, and the job entailed cooking and washing utensils. But his work hours were too lengthy, starting in the wee hours of dawn and extending till way past midnight. He couldn't bear it and ran back home.
[W]hen India signed the ILO convention 138 (defining admission of age to employment) it somewhere didn't uphold its true spirit.
He used to go to school before that. But his father passed away and the responsibility of the family fell on his not-so-ready shoulders. But he's not giving up. He cannot afford to. Because as soon as he gives up on this tiring and gruelling schedule, his two little brothers will be forced to drop out of school like him. And that is a risk he is not willing to take.
Maybe this story is as much about Rosaline as it is about Sajid. Rosaline Bankira, who had to give up on her studies after class four and spend her days running behind the cattle in the fields. It was her sister who fought tooth and nail to get her back to school. And then suddenly, the girl who used to run behind the cattle started running marathons representing her school. From winning every race in school to every marathon till the state level, Rosaline has come a long way. It amazes her to think about how her sister changed her life by refusing to give in to societal and family pressures.
Or just maybe, this story is as much about Dula, as much as it is about Sajid and Rosaline. Dula Marandi is from the Santhal village of Bankisol in Baripada, Odisha. Dula goes to school, and apart from his school hours, the rest of his day, every day, goes in making ropes from babui grass. Struggling to make ends meet, and struggling even harder to continue his studies in the darkness of the nights (because his village still doesn't have electricity), Dula has cleared his secondary examinations this year. His only focus in life right now is to get into college—"I am not going to spend my entire life making ropes, no sir!" To which his father adds, "If only the kid could spend more of his time studying, he would have gotten much better results, I'm sure."
The recent amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 states clearly that no child under the age of 14 years can be employed in any form of labour. But, in the same breath, it also says that children can assist their families in work (non-hazardous in nature), after school hours. By bringing this amendment, the legislation wants to align CLPRA with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education for all children between the ages of 6 to 14 years. However having a caveat of children's engagement as "help" to the household is highly problematic which is likely to compromise child's right to develop, learn and play. With this amendment in place, when India signed ILO convention 138 (defining admission of age to employment) it somewhere didn't uphold its true spirit.
[T]he condition of assisting in household occupations, while not compromising school hours, defeats the very intent behind RTE. It takes for granted that once children come back from school, there's no need to invest any time in their studies.
The amendment doesn't seem to have solved all the problems. Otherwise, why would Dula's father crib about him not getting enough study hours at home? What would happen if Rosaline did not have to run behind cattle for two years of her life? Or, if Sajid didn't have to shoulder the responsibility of his family after his father's death? Sajid wants to wear a white uniform and drive a car... a grand, expensive car. How would it be if he could take up drivers' training after he finished class 12?
If one thinks a little more deeply, the condition of assisting in household occupations, while not compromising school hours, defeats the very intent behind RTE. It takes for granted that once children come back from school, there's no need to invest any time in their studies. There's no need to play with their friends or enjoy their time. No need for rest. As if, their physical and mental development needs no physical activity or rest at all.
That is not the end of the series of questions. This amendment that allows participation of children in family enterprises, has not been able to clear the air about the nature of the activities that fall under its purview. According to the amendment, Rosaline can go on herding the cattle during her summer vacations and Dula can make ropes three hours every evening and all evenings throughout the year. Or maybe, children can help their parents in the fields during the monsoons. Or pick tea leaves in tea estates. They can cook in coal ovens, wash clothes and utensils and take care of their siblings. And if there's no time after all this to go out and play? Who cares about that?
It doesn't end here. When you spot a child washing plates in a roadside tea stall, how would you know if it's not their family business? Is the owner his/her "uncle?" Or has she/he been strongly advised to call the owner "uncle", at least in front of the inquisitive customers? Is our infrastructure strong enough to rescue that child? Moreover, is it strong enough to ensure that the child will not be engaged into "family enterprises" again? No matter what the papers say about the infrastructural strength of this country, the number of the people convicted for employing child labour don't reflect the strength in any which way.
We need to invest much more in building a robust social security net for the marginalised population, and protect children from playing "economic roles".
No wonder that, having these questions un-answered, Census 2011 reveals we have more than 10 million child labourers between 5-14 years in the country. We also see that in the past 10 years, the rate of child labour in the country has only decreased by a mere 2.2% every year, which means that to eradicate child labour from this country, it will take us more than a hundred years at this pace. Even more challenging is the fact that child labour in urban areas has increased by 53% over the last decade.
All these stories reiterate the social reality and household economics which compel children to work and be "helping hands". There are no unilateral answers to this complex socio-economic problem. We need to invest much more in building a robust social security net for the marginalised population, and protect children from playing "economic roles" early in their lives. We as adults cannot afford to fail our children's aspirations. The stories of Sajid, Rosaline and Dula are stories of resilience and hope. It is upon us how to help them live their dreams and take them on the path of continuing their education, taking away the burden of being "helping hands."