Do the children of the poor deserve a childhood?

Reinforcing Inequalities 

In May 2015, the NDA II Central government amended India’s Child Labour Act enabling children of the poor to “work” in family enterprises signaling legislative sanction to discrimination: one standard for the children of the poor and the artisan class and another for the privileged.Columnist Madhu Prasad comments:

It’s now official. Poverty and the fragile conditions of life of the majority of India’s population are going to form the basis of legislative discrimination, and not be the target of corrective legislation. The union cabinet’s approval of amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 makes this abundantly clear. Ostensibly seeking a complete ban on employment of children upto 14 years of age, the amendments smuggle in the caveat that “family enterprises” are exempt from this ban as long as the children’s labour does not “interfere” with their education.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE 2009) notwithstanding, the virtual collapse of the government-funded and administered school system in the states and at the centre, is now an open secret. Hardly a week passes without fresh reports of the merger/closure of schools, currently estimated at over one and a half lakh, or the auction of government schools to private corporate houses, NGO’s or religious organisations.

This process, either directly or indirectly, has resulted in even primary education passing into the hands of fee-charging private agencies over whom the RTE 2009 gives no regulatory control to central and state governments. Consequently, only children from the most deprived and marginalized sections are enrolled in the sarkari school system and suffer its dysfunctional and crisis-ridden state.

The `special’ quality schools run by governments (Kendriya Vidyalayas, Sainik schools, varieties of model schools etc.), have been placed outside the scope of the RTE 2009, except for the 25% economically weaker section quota, similar to that laid down for private schools. Hence, it is obvious that the proposed permissible ‘labour in family enterprises’ is unlikely to interfere with the education of deprived and disadvantaged children since `education’ in fact does not exist for them.

Government’s policy intentions have been made clearer by the subsequent “skill development” initiative which has been launched with much fanfare. In government schools a skill development stream would not only be introduced at the secondary level, but courses in skilling could be started even at elementary level for under 14 year olds.

Undoubtedly these courses would augment skills acquired in `family enterprises’. Largely involving farm work and artisanal skills (often caste specific), these can also include match-making, carpet weaving and gem polishing where child labour is already in great demand.

Whenever a supplementary, informal workforce is inducted into the work process, it is largely through auxiliary, unorganized sectors in which “family enterprises” play a dominant role. The contribution of such a workforce in generating production values remains `surplus’, i.e. it does not get adequately reflected in the market value of finished products, as minimal or no wages are paid.

When hazardous and even bonded labour of children is rampant, the amendments to the 1986 Act threaten to open up further `resources’ for plunder and exploitation. In this case it our children, our youth, in fact, the nation’s future.

The Marxist analysis of the role of unpaid household labour by women in particular, but also by other family members including children, in pushing families down to subsistence levels of existence, in keeping wages down and hence keeping profits high is too well documented to ignore. Nor can one ignore the fact that it is invariably justified by recourse to “family values”.

Thus, women worked themselves to the bone because it was their “nurturing instincts” that kept the family together. Similarly, the children of poor families are bound by familial bonds to contribute their mite to the efforts of their struggling parents and elder brothers and sisters.

How could something like a complete ban on child labour be allowed to interfere with socially commended and much-admired emotions of love for one’s elders and concern for one’s family? When the children of the materialistic elites are showing such a disregard for these values, leaving aged parents to fend for themselves while they enrich themselves in foreign countries, should’nt the less fortunate be encouraged to promote and strengthen our ancient civilizational values at home?

The 1986 Act was sorely in need of amendment and reform. It did not curb the prevalence of child labour under 14 years and failed to regulate labour conditions for 14 to 18 year-olds. Since child labour ensures that adult wage rates are kept low, the failure was not one that required a mere tweaking of laws.

Child labour requires to be banned and compulsory, absolutely free education of equitable quality – from early childhood care upto Class XII – has to be provided for all India’s children. Because the vast majority of children belong to families living in conditions of dire deprivation, because their nutritional intake is at sub-Saharan levels, because they further suffer from caste, gender, religious, linguistic and disability discrimination, only common neighbourhood schools, with a revised syllabus and curriculum reflecting the diversity and plurality of the lives of children, can achieve this goal.
The full nutritional intake of a child would also have to be provided through school meals-cum-tiffin so that the ability to learn and play is not left dependent on whatever parents can manage to eke out. If we have to `invest’ in a `model of development’ then let it be one that grounds itself in freedom from deprivation, exploitation and discrimination. Let every child have genuine equality of opportunity.

This responsibility can only be shouldered by the State.  In fact, in India it is a constitutional obligation for the State to provide for the fundamental right to education for every child as the right to a life of dignity is impossible without it. Nor is this an impractical dream. If a government can at one stroke offer to cut corporate taxes by 5% and promise to allocate crores of rupees for a hundred smart cities, then clearly there is no shortage of funds. What we are low on is priorities.  

The present regime came to power advertising its commitment to contemporary international levels of `development’, but it is being rapidly exposed as an advocate of pre-democratic and pre-welfarist 19th century values.

It appears more committed to aiding a small group of India’s big industrialists to accumulate capital and earn super-profits in order to perform their role as partners and facilitators for the international capitalist elite. If the land acquisition ordinance, which is aimed at handing over the country’s natural resources and real estate to this section and has been withdrawn only because of united widespread opposition from peasant and tribal communities and organisations, is one side of this process, the legal provision for making child labour not just permissible but also acceptable, by talk of “family enterprise” is its other, more sordid, side.

When hazardous and even bonded labour of children is rampant, the amendments to the 1986 Act threaten to open up further `resources’ for plunder and exploitation. In this case it our children, our youth, in fact, the nation’s future.






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