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We Are Failing Our Children

Jul 31, 2019

Allowing children to labour is a collective crime and each one of us are culpable, writes Anjana Purkayastha.

New Delhi: “I would stich 2 footballs a day, my fingers hurt terribly,” said 14 – year- old Mohini. “My contractor hits me hard if I don’t stich 15 set of gloves a day,” says 14 – year- old Saad. Both of these children are from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, while Mohini is back to school, Saad is still trapped in the cycle of child labour.

Millions of children are working as child labourers even today- in factories, farms, kilns, mines, homes and city waste dumps, when they should be in the company of books. We have profoundly failed these children- collectively depriving them of education, play, rest, healthy growth and a happy childhood.

In August1 2012, the Government banned all forms of labour for children under the age of 14, but this to a large extent has remained a paper tiger. According to UNICEF2, child labour in India has merely shifted from factories to employee homes and children continue to be engaged in harmful industries such as bidi and fireworks production. This shift to informal home-based sectors are the missing children in the larger child labour data. Working after school hours and during vacations, in fields, home-based work, factories and vending, is another way of exploiting childhood legally. Of the many injustices that have scarred India, the most unconscionable are those of unequal childhoods.

The debate on child labour should have been settled with the Constitutional amendment (Article 21-A) recognizing the right to education as a fundamental right for all children. If the law demands that a child must be in a mainstream school, then the child cannot simultaneously be at work. Today, despite the legal right to education and the State’s efforts to end child labour, thousands of children remain unreached. These include children of migrant labour, children subjected to bondage, trafficking, street children and child workers.

Laws banning child labour and making education compulsory are laudatory actions, but are not enough to ensure children are back into classrooms – for two reasons. Firstly, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act3 has implementing issues. Referring to the concept, the official website admits, “the right exists in theory, but there is no capacity to implement this right in practice”. Government schools lack qualified teachers, clean drinking water and toilets. Only 54 per cent of schools have a separate girl’s toilet because of which girls drop out once they start menstruating (ASER 2017)4 and many of them end up as child labourers. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the underlying cause of child labour still exists: poverty. For most of these children, working is not an option, but an enforced choice. Poverty keeps these children out of school, so as to augment their desperately low family incomes. Banning child labour is ineffective if we do not address poverty.

The State would need to take a holistic approach in eliminating child labour. One needs a multi-pronged strategy to tackle child employment by implementing the enforcement of laws, increasing awareness and strengthening education systems. Governments would need to ensure quality education, enforce labour laws, and provide child-care services and social protection, and above all, battle poverty.

Our country is working towards achieving a robust economic growth but this growth cannot be built on the slender shoulders of impoverished working children like Mohini and Saad. No argument justifies sending a child to work instead of school.

Anjana Purkayastha is Senior Director - Special Projects, World Vision India

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