New law on child labour is 'woefully inadequate': Kailash Satyarthi

Kailash Satyarthi | P Jawahar | EPS
Kailash Satyarthi | P Jawahar | EPS

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi cannot stop lamenting about the lack of enforcement agencies working together towards eradicating a social evil.

Speaking to Lakshmy Venkiteswaran about the "woefully inadequate" amendments to the law on child labour, he calls for a system of education that's based on equality, inclusivity, quality and lifelong learning

Your fight against child labour … How successful has it been?

When I began working on the issue in 1981, child labour was a non-issue. There was no law anywhere in the world, including India, and the media showed no interest in it too.

People had various reasons to employ children, and the most common was that poor kids needed money and that they were earning it.

After we organised the Global March Against Child Labour in 1998 (unprecedented 80,000 km across 103 countries), there was a public outcry for an international legislation to combat the worst forms of child labour like slavery, trafficking, and also using them as soldiers.

Several laws were enacted and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) convention against the worst forms of child labour followed because of it. From 260 million children employed in labour in 1999-2000 globally, it fell to 168 million in the last 15 years. Have I eradicated child labour entirely? No…it’s a long battle but we have had some victories (smiles).

Okay…now we have a law, which was even recently amended, and it…

(Interrupts) It is woefully inadequate! The amendment is not good at all. It allows children under 14 to work in their family-run businesses, and the number of hazardous occupations has been reduced from 83 to 3 (glass furnaces, beedi making, brick kilns and zari factories) I have rescued so many children from their extended families who were using these kids like slaves. How can children be safe anywhere if they are used for labour?

Many families encourage their kids to stop studying because they have family-owned businesses. How do you convince them this is wrong?

In Bachpan Bachchao Andolan, we have this concept called Bal Mitr Gaon, which is being followed by hundreds of villages. All children are withdrawn from child labour and rescued from child marriages; all children are made to attend school, and those who go to school form a Children’s Parliament (Bal Panchayat), and the village panchayats agree to work with them. We also have former bonded labourers who are now employed for a monthly salary. They speak up in front these panchayats and also families.

For instance, when a woman inspector speaks at the schools and events – it’s a big deal in villages when a child enters the police force – she becomes a role model for families. We have the Mukthi Caravan – a campaign on wheels, where many former child labourers, now trained in theatre and storytelling, speak to the public about child rights.

Speaking of Children’s Parliament, why is there no representation to kids with disabilities?

First of all, the government has to ensure that schools have all the facilities for children with disabilities – bathrooms, classrooms, black boards, staircases etc. If the environment in which they live is inaccessible, how can they represent anyone? Make accessibility a part of social equality.

Where are disabled children employed?

Most rescued kids with disabilities are found on the streets – begging, or in agriculture, and those without legs are found in weaving units, and the embroidery sector.

How can violators be held accountable?

Accountability by enforcement agencies is missing in all laws relating to children, except for POCSO. There are too many parallel bodies involved in enforcement. Child Labour Act, Juvenile Justice Act, POCSO, education, health etc don’t work together.

They have to be inter-linked. When there is so much fragmentation and compartmentalisation of policy, it doesn’t leave much room for effective solutions. Efforts to combat any social evil should be more collaborative and coordinated.

Education being the fundamental right of a child is a great start but if other factors prevent a child’s learning, then how can you eradicate or prevent children from the streets?

There’s a school of thought that believes that vocational or skill-based learning is more useful for children than basic school education. Comment

India’s commitment to sustainable development depends on a system of education that has four components: inclusion, quality, equity, and lifelong learning. Even if one is compromised, the system fails.

I’m not against vocational training at all but why apply it only to a certain section of society? Why not link both basic education and skill-based training? If you restrict the latter to just poor people, you’re widening the socioeconomic chasm, propagating social disparity, and reinforcing caste hierarchy.

Children living on the streets have survival skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. When you rescue street children, how do you integrate them into the school system?

First, a lot of money is needed! The new Juvenile Justice Act has a strong component of children needing care and protection. This requires investment – budget allocation by the Central and State governments.

The money allocated for the welfare and rehab of rescued children is miserably low. Second, people must understand that children rescued from bonded labour, streets, trafficking etc suffer a lot of trauma. They’re used and abused to the extent that they don’t trust anyone.

You have to earn their trust and you cannot do it immediately.

How do you ‘earn their trust’?

For instance, in the ashrams that my wife and I run in Delhi and Rajasthan, rescued children are given 2-3 weeks to get used to an abuse-free environment.

This is done to restore a sense of freedom, dignity and self-esteem. Let them know that it’s their choice. They don’t know what to do – they’re shy, timid and often scared. Many are not used to sitting on chairs; they have been victims of every worst of discrimination you can think of.

They’re used to working all the time like slaves. So they don’t understand why it’s okay for them not to work but just eat and sleep whenever they want to. Kids addicted to drugs, and also rescued from trafficking, take more time and need more help before they open up. We have counsellors and psychiatrists to help them.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express