CHENNAI: Hari (name changed), a 10-year-old boy works as a mechanic’s assistant at a shop near Elephant Gate. Like any boy of his age, there is an evident innocence on his face. But the expression dramatically transforms and an impassive seriousness takes over. Although child protection officials may show reduced numbers in the instances of child labour in the city, child rights activists claim no decrement. “Unorganised workers in the city now send their children to school, but the migrant workers do not. The income is a huge source for these parents who are otherwise unable to find employment in their own states,” says KR Renuka, a social activist.
According to A Devaneyan, director, Thozhamai, migrants from villages to metros are driven by a compulsion to provide for a family deprived of sustenance. “In the current scenario, where 48.6 per cent of Tamil Nadu is urbanised, we cannot call it an agricultural state. Farmers sell their lands and send their children to cities hoping for income,” he says. A larger picture brings in factors like alcoholism, abandonment and sickness among parents. “Regularised industries do not have child labour, but what about unpaid care work? There are children who drop out of school to look after their siblings and those who accompany their mothers for domestic work,” adds Devaneyan. He attributes the prevalence to the toothless child protection laws. A collective action from Social Welfare, Education and Labour departments and a holistic approach to the problem of child labour could be the first step in eradicating it.
The activists say that the first step should be to make the definition of a child coherent in all the legislations. “Those below the age of 14 years are child labourers, but what about the adolescents from 15 to 18 years?” questions Dr Manorama, an activist who works with children away from homes. “Any child running away from home is exploited. Promises of good jobs are broken and they are made to do menial work that no one else would do. This is not also trafficking, but neither society nor the authorities look at it in this angle,” she says.
On a day when activists hold demonstrations against child labour and leaders orate from high pedestals, may be the best way to start would be to amend the Child labour act to state “No child below the age of 18 should work” and increase the severity of punishment for those accused of employing children.