It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, they say. But what if the children are broken long before they become men? What if, robbed of their days of innocence and play, they never transit naturally, as they are supposed to, from the ‘age of protection’ to the ‘age of preparation’ before hitting adulthood when they’re equipped to face the realities of life? At a time when they’re meant to be learning new subjects and skills in school, what if they’re sent to slave in factories and ill-lit godowns, and rewarded with beatings and starvation or at best, a monthly salary of under `100? The scenario may sound like a Dickensian bad dream to some, but it’s a reality for lakhs of poor children in this country.
In the developed world, great numbers of needy women and children laboured in factories and mills in the 19th century. But, as the 20th century progressed, protective laws were drawn up to remove children from the workforce and instead entrench them in safety and material comfort. A century later, here in India, we don’t even know what that means.
Yes, we are supposed to have long banned child labour, most especially in “hazardous occupations and processes”. And yet, the 2011 census revealed that 4.3 million children, between the ages of five and fourteen, were employed as main workers and another 5.7 million were working for half the year.
Now, the situation promises to worsen, with the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, which instead of banning labour in its entirety, allows children to “help the family in fields, do home-based work or work in a forest” after school hours or on holidays. Legislators say this will ensure that the education of the child is not affected. But how many children can complete a full day in school and then have the energy and mental wherewithal to come home and slog for the “family business”?
In any case, I believe the introduction of the family angle is a low blow. Imagine the pressure that can and will be exerted on any child who shows reluctance to do his bit to help his family make ends meet. Who, in this situation, will equip the child with the information and skills he needs to prevent abuse and challenge discrimination? Plus, how do you tell if a business is really run by a family or is sub-let to it by unscrupulous forces to circumvent the law?
Decades ago, manufacturers used to say the cost of a rug would rise by 60 per cent if we kept children out of the carpet factories of Northern India. Now, we need to ask, is the new amendment a way to get around that problem and slyly farther the cause of manufacturing? Do we want to ‘Make in India’ by unmaking India?