On the World Day Against Child Labour, we take a reality check into the workings of a system that has done little to combat child labour in the State
Padmini C and Sudeshna Koka
Children are a source of joy and pride. For most of us, they are the reason of our existence. When children are asked to carry school bags that are much too heavy for their tiny backs, we are outraged. When our children go hungry for a meal, we feel like we have failed, as parents and care-givers. Yet, the sight of a child making his daily run with 20 kgs of bricks on his head, gives us no pause. Children toiling away for 13-14 hours a day in cotton-seed farms, shops and establishments is too ordinary for our notice, unworthy of our attention.
It was to give these children a voice that we at Postnoon decided to start the ‘Putting Children First’ campaign. Over the past week, we have talked to child welfare activists, child protection officers, policy-makers, police officers, NGOs and children employed as labour and it has been an enlightening experience.
It’s been a challenge to work, singular in that, every time we sought answers to the most fundamental queries, we only came away with some more questions. Who are these children? Where are they? Why were they there? How many of them are there? What can be done about them?
The problems are many. First, every single source we spoke to, from government to NGO, told us point-blank that they have no figures on the number of children being employed as labour in the State. Many government agencies still quote figures from the 2001 census and, are awaiting the 2011 figures when asked for data. Similarly, no one seemed to know how many rescue homes there are as most NGOs in the field are not registered, and therefore, not recognised by the law.
Second, the laws themselves are vague and at best, non-committal. The Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act 1986, is to say the least, outdated and full of loop-holes. Also, different laws have different definitions and parameters of what constitutes child labour, allowing the offenders a free pass to freedom.
Third, the only dedicated legal entity that has the power to make a difference, the Child Welfare Committees, are struggling to make their presence felt. CWC members themselves speak of incidences when offenders don’t appear before them when petitioned, as they don’t realise it as the final authority.
Hours of waiting in government offices, requesting for answers, gave us an indication of why there is such a policy paralysis on the issue. The large numbers are not a problem, they are a refuge. “A lot has been done, but these things take time,” is the line of the powers that be. Meanwhile, activists on the ground cry for help, unable to see any fruit of the crores of rupees being funnelled into welfare schemes like the Integrated Child Development/ Protection Schemes.
But it was our visits to rescue homes that were the most telling. Braving all odds, these children smile widely, study dedicatedly, and dream unreservedly. A lifetime of violence and abuse has done little to break their spirit. Resilient, they have channeled their energies into giving back to society; determined to become doctors, engineers, civil servants and most touchingly, police officers, when they grow up so they can prevent other children from the same fate.
But if only good intentions and the will-to-do were enough to change a system that’s predominantly indifferent to the plight of millions of helpless children, then the child welfare community would have long since succeeded in eliminating child labour.
No, the answer, we have learned from our travails is a comprehensive integrated approach. Those in administration and welfare, NGOs and the government are headed in different directions even while having a common goal. This lack of foresight, co-operation between agencies, adherence to time-frames, and resistance to execute any given programme has led to generation after generation of child labour just moving on to become adult labour.
The need of the hour is not new budgets or more schemes. It is for all parties working towards child labour — be it the Women and Child Welfare Ministry, CWCs, NGOs, Labour Department, Police Department — to join hands and put their strengths together for a plan of action that’s ruthless in its combat against child labour. Every link in the chain — from tracking to rescue, protection to prosecution, rehabilitation to retention — must hold. That is the only way we’ll break this endless loop.
The heartbreaking reality of the story is that child labour continues, because there is a market for it. Every rescue officer we’ve met has had the same thing to say — employers pick children because they have no voice, no rights, no one to fight for them. They are resilient, compliant, can be beaten into obedience, and can sustain on the bare minimum. Whatever form of child labour, domestic, industrial, in shops and establishments, the story of these children is one of exploitation, abuse and violence. There are no happy endings for them.
There is only one way to change their endings. While child welfare organisations, NGOs and government agencies are doing their part, we have to do ours. In fact, our role is more pivotal. Awareness is not the problem. We all know it, see it, and promptly forget it. We have to awake from our comfort-induced slumber, if we are to build a nation that can stand on its own feet. If we can’t do as much as calling 1098, a toll-free helpline number to save a child in distress, we lose the right to ask anything of our government.