Intricacies of abolishing child labour

The Hans India | Dr MOHAN KANDA | April 10, 2019

Much has been said and written about the scourge of child labour, worldwide as well as in India. The malady has had a chequered history for centuries, with societies and governments adopting approaches suited to the ethos and culture of their environments at different times.

rom the second half of the previous century, however, it has been accepted universally that employing children for work is a pernicious practice. As a result, several measures have been taken, legal, policy and operational, by various countries including our own.

In the strict and formal sense, child labour refers to the exploitation of children through any form of work that deprives them of childhood, prevents them from attending school and harms them physically, mentally, socially and morally.

Apart from this, abandoned, abused, convicted, drug-addicted, sexually-abused, and impecunious children are also recognised as being in the need of care by either the government, or by non-government or civil society-based organisations.

Employing children was a common practice in the 19thand early 20thcenturies in the western countries as well as their colonies, mostly in agriculture, assembly – operations, factories, mining and services such as domestic helpers and newspaper distribution.

Gradually, over time and with the advent of child labour laws, together with rising household incomes, and increasing access to schools and colleges, its incidence fell down. Although, at the global level, there was a marked decrease in the incidence – from 25% to 10% between 1960 and 2003 (according to the World Bank), the UNICEF and ILO estimated in 2013 that 168 million children between the ages of 5-17 were still engaged in labour.

Article 24 of the Indian constitution clearly states that, “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment.” Child labour is not completely outlawed in India.
Children below the age of 14 are permitted to work as long as their work is in non-hazardous environments. In 1986, India introduced the Child Labour Act that allowed children below 14 to be involved in “non-hazardous” work such as working on farms and making handicrafts.

The policy of the government is to ban employment of children below the age of fourteen years in factories, mines and hazardous employment and to regulate the working conditions of children in other employment. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 seeks to achieve this basic objective.

Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity and interferes with their education. Child labourers are vulnerable to abuse, and their families are often trapped in a cycle of poverty.
They are also at a higher risk for illnesses such as respiratory illnesses and are exposed to harmful chemicals that can also affect their physical development. Often, these children also suffer from malnutrition which leads to other serious health and mental conditions later in life.

Studies have attributed the prevalence of child labour to causes essentially of primary, cultural and macroeconomic origin. As noted by ILO, the greatest single cause is poverty as the income from the child’s work is usually crucial for the survival of the household. Also, certain cultural beliefs, such as that work is good for character building and skill development of children, have rationalised child labour, indirectly increasing it.

The belief that a child should follow in the footsteps of its parents and carry on the earth craft or business that has been traditionally practised in the family is another such cause. In many cultures education of girls is not considered important or even necessary and, consequently, girl children are pushed into employment activities such as provision of domestic services.

A large number of them are also engaged in various demeaning trades such as washing leather, the tanning industry etc. Many of them also find short-term employment in poultry farms and sheep farms before the Ramzan and Bakrid festivals. No matter where the children are employed, they live in the harshest kind of conditions denied even basic human requirements such as food, sanitation and treated more like animals than human beings.

Little wonder, then, that the children often develop diseases including skin related and lung related problems. The inhuman practice of “bonded labour” unfortunately continues to be prevalent in some parts of the country, many statutory and administrative determined interventions to the contrary notwithstanding.

Experts studies have also shown that there can be demand “pull” and supply “push” causes for the practice. While poverty and shortage of schools cause the push, the faster growth of the low – paying informal sector than the high – paying formal sector explains the pull.

There can, often, be a dilemma about the desirability or otherwise of allowing a child to continue doing labour which, on the face of it, is not only unfair but also illegal, or denying him/her the livelihood merely in order to drag him/her into a system of education largely of no relevance to his future.

Such was the ethical problem a friend of this columnist faced some decades ago as a Public Relations Officer in the University of Hyderabad, when a visiting team from the UNICEF brought to his notice the employment of children by the canteen manager.

Among the many reasons why children are pushed into ungainful employment is the very content of the curriculum at the high school level. The syllabus is not only difficult to master but the abstract teaching and generally informed by the persuasion that fear and punishment are the best methods of instruction.
Circumstances in which it is hardly surprising to find that children from remote areas, particularly those belonging to the less privileged sections, find the pursuit of studies both uninteresting and unrewarding. They therefore tend to remain idle or are sucked into tempting but highly dangerous activities such as working for the underground or the extremists.

This issue has, to some extent, been addressed fairly affectively in recent years through the introduction of skill development programmes which offer an alternative to formal education and offer young people a promising livelihood.

It must be clearly understood that the best medium for cognitive development is the mother tongue. Therefore, the efforts of our political leaders to introduce English as the medium of instruction from even the primary level would appear to be a case of rushing into where angels fear to tread!

The age-old adage that education is a “drawing out” and not a “putting in”, bears repetition in this context. It is the innate talent of a child that needs to be recognised, nurtured and developed to its fullness. To attempt, instead, to inject a great deal of useless information into its mind is a practice that has long since proved irrelevant to the contemporary context.

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