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Nov 03, 2014

Several thousand Kailash Satyarthis continue to carry on their hard work, unheard and unsung, writes Rajesh Tandon.

Kailash Satyarthi

New Delhi: During the height of the Emergency, the government of then Prime Minister late Indira Gandhi passed an ordinance on October 25, 1975 to abolish bonded labour; the 'suspended' parliament four months later 'enacted' the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976.

The newly formed National Labour Institute (under the leadership of Labour Minister late Raghunath Reddy) began its operations from the rented premises in Safdarjang Development Area, New Delhi. It focused on the plight of rural and bonded labour by organising popular education 'rural labour camps'; the late Prof Nitish De was brought in from IIM, Calcutta as its first Dean.

These rural labour camps began to popularise several 'revolutionary measures' taken through the Ordinance route by the government during the Emergency to ameliorate the plight of rural and unorganised sector labour.

Two years later, the newly formed Janata government in Delhi then launched a Centrally Sponsored Scheme in 1978 for the rehabilitation of labour thus released from bondage. Several Gandhian institutions, especially the Gandhi Peace Foundation and Gandhi Peace Centre (under the leadership of late S Radhakrishnan) conducted the first nation-wide study of bonded labour (which was subsequently published by a radical woman lawyer Manjari Digwaney).

A new generation of voluntary organisations emerged in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, taking forward such efforts at social transformation, after getting frustrated with the formal political process with the demise of the Janata coalition.

Freeing and rehabilitating bonded labourers amongst dalit and tribal communities became a major focus of such social mobilisation efforts of many of these voluntary organisations. Joe Madiath in Kerandimalsin southern Odisha, Vivek Pandit of Sharmjivi Sangathan in Thane and Swami Agnivesh in and around Delhi began campaigns to free bonded labour, as well as demand their effective rehabilitation.

It is in the course of these campaigns that some social activists focused their attention on bonded and forced child labour. Kailash Satyarthi was one such early champion for the abolition of child labour, and formed the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement).

The two main industries, other than agriculture, where incidence of 'forced' child labour came to light in the early 1980s were the carpet weaving in eastern Uttar Pradesh and manufacture of firecrackers in Sivakasi (Tamilnadu). These early campaigns led to the enactment of the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act 1986. However, this Act was more about regulation, and much less about prohibition of child labour. Prohibition was restricted to hazardous industries like chemicals and firecrackers.

Typically, national and state governments throughout the 1990s paid scant attention to monitoring the implementation of the regulations of the Act. As a phenomenon, child labour was most widespread in the Indian sub-continent. Several international agencies joined together (and Kailash was in the forefront of this) to launch a Global March Against Child Labour in 1998, resulting in the adoption of ILO Convention 182 prohibiting such practices. Kailash and his team later joined, and provided substantial leadership to, Global Campaign for Education For All (EFA) as rehabilitation of such children needed proper educational opportunities.

In response, the government first denied the presence of forced and bonded child labour in India; it later released figures to indicate that it was a decreasing occurrence. The NSSO 2004-05 data indicates less than 9 million child labour in the whole country (Delhi having around 9000 only). A quick assessment of supply of domestic servants in the kitchens of several lakh Delhi households would establish the sheer denial of this reality by the governments, and citizens alike!

The issues surrounding child labour gradually disappeared from the attention of governments and funding agencies. The dawn of the 21st century saw emphasis on different new agendas, and India declared itself both as emerging and 'shining'. Attention towards India's economic might, its IT industry and its growing middle class seemed to imply that 20th century problems (like child labour) had been solved.

Despite the fact that child labour (and bonded labour) issues began to go 'out of fashion', BachpanBachaoAndolan continued its work single-mindedly. Gradually, new occupations of prevalence of child labour were included in the expanded definition of child labour.

The most prominent amongst these were child labour in tea-shops, road-side restaurants and domestic servants. It was only in 2006 that these categories of child labour in India have been included in the legislation.

By this account, the current Prime Minister escaped being classified as child labour when he was selling tea at railway stations in his childhood.

A new law to prohibit child labour altogether, so that Article 24 of Indian Constitution can be operationalised nearly seventy years later, is in the making in the Indian parliament for the last three years.

The Prime Minister's launching of 'a slew of labour reforms' on 14 October 2014 did not mention reforming legislations regarding child labour; it would have acknowledged the unending practices surrounding the exploitation of our children, especially in light of the recent recognition to Kailash Satyarthi by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

Likewise, those who are championing the ban against lighting of Chinese-made fire-crackers this Diwali, may well demand enforcement of the ban against use of child labour in Sivakasi and elsewhere.

At the bane of this reality is the rapidly shifting nature of India, and the world around. New generation of civil society actors, using new generation of social media tools, are campaigning on new issues as part of the global movement. New philanthropists are eager to support such 'new causes' with 'new approaches'.

In the meanwhile, several thousand Kailash Satyarthis continue to carry on their hard work of addressing century-old societal malpractices in the country, unheard and unsung. They do so because their commitment to these causes of social transformation are not time-bound; their interventions are not limited to short-term log-frames; and they understand that such systemic transformations require generations of sustained efforts. Policy-makers and donors come-n-go, but struggles for social transformation continue!


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