Child Labour: Myth and Reality

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Myth: UN poster girl from Orissa, India

Reality:Water play at River Narmada, Bharuch City, Gujarat, India. (Photo bt Remi de Souza)





A branded bathing soap by a MNC, nowadays, in an ad on TV channels in India, send children to a waterlogged cricket stadium to drain the field. They are voluntary child labourers from elite class urban families. They

have excellent communication gadgets and bicycles. What a noble cause! How enormous is human energy!  


      I was born in a village in Konkan – a rice bowl of Maharashtra State. During my childhood in nineteen forties, due to the shortage of food, the government was supplying grains, imported millet – red Jowar, through its public distribution system on ration shops. It needed thorough cleaning and washing. We called it “dukari” meaning “pig-food”, or so believed to be used in the West. This was perhaps a side effect of war in Europe. We were hen fortunate to get that much. Now the condition is much worst; the tribal, for example, in Orissa, as reported, were eating dried carnal of mango seeds, or in Gujarat kill their hunger by drinking fermented toddy arrack, in Maharashtra there are instances of death of tribal children by malnutrition or starvation in the backyard of Mumbai.   


      Later we heard that in Vietnam an entire generation was born on the war-field and grew up with guns in hands ready to fight. Thanks to the power greedy warmongers and profit greedy armament industry.


      Much later, very recently, we read in the media that the “UN poster girl” appeared as a mascot in a campaign against child labour, is still subjected to child labour in Bihar (see: TOI, Nov 21, 2006). It is as if by being a “poster girl” she had reached an exclusive status of “Miss World”. What about the millions of children in the cities and countrywide?


      Perhaps after the two World Wars in Europe many orphanages, SOS institutions for the children and homes for the aged might have been founded, so also, many brothels flourished. And the West being highly industrialised and wealthy, and less populated, may have also abolished ‘child labour’.


       However, here, the children, among 700-800 million Indians who are subjected to harsh disparity, educate themselves by ‘experiential learning’ in every possible occupation, vocation, trade of their families and communities, from dish-and-cloth washing and child rearing to agriculture, carpentry, abode building, pottery, smithy, running grocery shop etc. from early age. This has been going on for more than ten thousand years. They also acquire skills in hundred and one errands to support living. This education, of course, has no recognition by the official systems of industrialised and commercialised mass schooling. Thanks to the absence of burden of books typical of modern urban elite style of education that despite their labour and meagre level of literacy, they still get some time for leisure and play, and at countryside, be with whatever natural environment there.


      A few years back, I met one of my ex-students from a college of architecture, an aspiring young architect, near Churchgate Railway Station area in Mumbai. This is a very prestigious and prime location of downtown Mumbai. Besides, this young lady and her family have been residents of this area, perhaps for generations; obviously she belonged to the high society of Mumbai. She has been conducting a survey of hawkers in that area on behalf of the local residents’ association and some NGO.

      I asked her, “In your survey is there a question to find where these people – individual or group – come from? Do you find from which place they come and why? And where do they live in the city? Does this aspect figure in your questionnaire?” With surprise she Her answered, “No, Sir.” Predictably she did not even think about their families, leave aside children. The hawker-menace from that area is now largely eliminated.


      With the rise of industrialisation in India, earlier only male family members used to leave for cities for work, which fragmented families, yet womenfolk with help of the children and the aged managed their families. But now here there is another war, a war without a bang, that displaces not only families, even villages. There is a definition of “Dharma” – religion: “Dharayati Sa Dharama” – religion (is) that supports (society). What could a decadent fragmented society, which fails to evolve with changing times, do? It needs a law to abolish ‘child labour’, but law cannot guarantee morality of any society. Neither the system – legal or moral – nor the fundamental right by the Constitution to sustain oneself with dignity to be alive has any viable answer.


We have a saying in Marathi, “Mother doesn’t give to eat, father doesn’t allow to beg.” What would be the fallout of ant-child-labour law? During the past two decades, how many youths in the country have turned tools to crime, extortion or hands of the fundamentalists or terrorists? Indian politics, as is sentimental as well as fashionable, perhaps has an excellent record of enforcing law and enacting development projects long before or even without rehabilitation of the affected people. Would child labourer turn a beggar?  ¢


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Remigius de Souza

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