Intricacies of abolishing child labour
Mahatma Gandhi said, 'If we are to teach real peace in this world... we shall have to begin with the...
Mahatma Gandhi said, "If we are to teach real peace in this world... we shall have to begin with the children." The stark reality of "at risk" children in India makes for a depressing and sad story about the plight of children, in the world's largest democracy, even seven decades after it achieved Independence.
Pitiable, indeed, is the plight of children when one views things from the overall perspective. Less than half of children who enrol in grade one reach grade eight. One out of 10 is disabled. 70 out of 5,000 are victims of mortality before the age of one and the same number before the age of five. A mere 40 % are immunised before the age of two and as many as 75 % below the age of three are anaemic.
Four percent of the child population of India or about 10 million children work either as "main workers" or "marginal workers". Kailash Satyarthi, the children's rights activist who made India proud by winning - along with the Pakistani teenager Malala- the Nobel Peace Prize in (2014), made insightful observations, at the award function.
He said, among other things, that one week's global expenditure of armies would be enough to bring all children to classrooms, and that the quest for freedom could triumph over the shackles of slavery, if only the power of the laws, the police forces and the judges of the countries of the world decided to act. He also pleaded for globalisation of compassion that can lead to justice, equality and freedom for children.
A joint study by "Save the Children" (an international non-governmental organisation) and the government of India showed that 60 % of children in India are physically abused. About 60,000 disappear even according to official statistics. The UNICEF estimates 11 million as street children, a number which is said to be an underestimate.
Among the first major initiatives to be taken up by the government of India in the area of child protection was the enactment by Parliament of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.That act was further amended in 2016 primarily with a view to bringing adolescent children also under its purview and also completely to ban employment of children under the age of 14 irrespective of the fact that whether the employment was in a hazardous industry or not.
Despite being progressive and farsighted measures, both these statutory initiatives have come under the cloud of substantial criticism for the reason that they contained many loopholes and left gaps unaddressed.
The government of India in 2015 started "Operation Smile" and "Operation Muskaan", a cordon operation programme aimed at rescuing/rehabilitating missing children, reuniting them with their families, working for the uplift of the urban and rural poor through enhancement of livelihood opportunities, building friendly physical infrastructure for persons with disabilities and encouraging people to save for a girl child's education and marriage.
Under that programme, a dedicated campaign is conducted for a month by the District Child Protection Unit in collaboration with the State's Labour and Police departments. Several activities are undertaken with the objective of tracing/rescuing missing children - and reuniting them with their families. From time to time, coordination meetings are held with departments such as those dealing with Women Development and Child Welfare, Revenue, Labour, Railways, Social Welfare, Child Welfare Committees, NGOs etc. as a prelude to the month-long programme.
According to official statistics available with the department concerned of Telangana State, over 25,000 children have been rescued and almost an equal number repatriated with their families, while around 1,800 have been institutionalised under that programme so far. In another initiative not connected with the programme, over 5000 children have also been rescued during the said period from begging and labour apart from being reunited with their families.
The interventions are, however, not without their challenges and complications. This columnist had the privilege and honour of conversing with a person who has not only been an activist in the field of protecting the rights of children and women (from the rag-pickers of Vijayawada to the destitute children of the Twin Cities) for over two decades, but is also currently occupying an influential position in the State government of Telangana in an organisation (the District Child Welfare Committee, Hyderabad) dealing with the protection of children's rights.
It was a no-holds-barred and heart-to-heart kind of chat during which many home truths emerged concerning the administration of statutes relating to the protection of children's rights at the grassroots level. Many revealing and insightful facts emerged from that discussion.
For one thing a substantial portion of the target group the organisation is dealing with comprises children who belong to States which have officially declared themselves "child labour free"! Needless to say, the traffic is in the nature of an organised trade efficiently managed on a large scale by touts and agents from the various States.
The well-known problem of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing presents itself once again with every department washing its hands off in respect of the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of the excellent outcome of the efforts of the organisation.
And, unfortunately, the young and dynamic district heads, who are indeed in a position to deal with issues effectively, have too much on their plate to find the time to understand the issues concerned in sufficient detail. Fortunately, well-known voluntary organisations are available at hand to provide some sort of succour to the unfortunate children. The efforts of the administration to reunite abandoned children with their parents often prove futile as the families lack the wherewithal to accept the return of the children and look after them.
Solutions are not found only in the deliberations in conferences and prescriptions from a distance. They lie in small groups and local organisations and individuals, who confront the problem every day, even if they remain unrecognised and unknown to the world
In appreciation of the socio – economic ramifications of the issue of child labour, as also its magnitude, several initiatives have also been taken, as mentioned earlier, in many countries as well as at the international level. Their common objective is curbing the menace, if not eliminating it altogether. Notable among them is the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).
It was started in 1992 as an initiative of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and was originally conceived as part of the Decent Work Agenda, as a measure progressively to eliminate the scourge of child labour. It currently covers 88 countries and its targets and achievements are periodically reviewed in international conferences attended by representatives of the governments of member countries, and of employers' and workers' organisations.
Partners in the programme include, apart, of course, from children and their families, a wide range of stakeholders including community-based organisations, non-government organisations, the media, Parliamentarians, judiciary, universities and religious groups, among others.
Today's children, the adage goes, are tomorrow's citizens. Providing children with a healthy and happy childhood, good education, and the opportunity to lead happy lives while engaging in active and remunerative employment should be regarded as the fundamental duties of government and societies.
While one is gratified at the manner in which the importance of the issue has been registered, and recognised, internationally, and in India, one keeps one's fingers crossed about the future of the initiatives underway. One needs to remain sanguine and trust that the hiatus, between intentions and actual experience, will not be as wide as one is generally accustomed to observing in initiatives undertaken by governments. Bonne chance to UNICEF, in its endeavour to eradicate this evil by 2025!
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)