Lack of political will, lots of confusion

What is the impact of the ban on Child Labour? Did it help eliminate this dreadful practice? There is confusion aplenty and a dearth of political will.

Every morning, Mahadev rises and soars with the soggy monsoon sun as orders surge. It’s boom time in IT city, after all. “I haven’t seen such a busy season for three years,” he smiles, as he wends his way over the half-manicured streets of HSR Layout.

Mahadev is 12.

He doesn’t know, therefore, that his princely wages of Rs.70 per day earned for moulding iron gates and grids is a shameful secret. That his earnings are a breaking story of sorts, though not for the same reason as those of IIM-B graduates. His salary is invisible as his employment violates the ban on child labour and so doesn’t seep into official records. So while he contributes to the national production and income, it is not documented, or even ‘legal’, according to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

Since 10 October 2006, 13-year-old Rajeshwari, a domestic servant at Jayanagar has suddenly become ‘criminal’ too. As the ban on child labour extended to two more sectors—the hospitality and the domestic sector, she’s joined the banned brigade. Ignorant of her crime, though, Rajeshwari is wearing pink ribbons today. “I got a raise of Rs.25 this month,” she says, proudly. (The authorities’ approach to working children is to treat them like criminals, as they are usually caught and put into remand homes.)

The Mahadevs and Rajeshwaris of Bangalore make it difficult for the country to keep shameful secrets, as they are so overwhelmingly large in numbers, and haven’t been told to duck and hide when asked what they are up to. In the clogged morning hours, they toil in embarrassing public view to add to the national production and income, unaware that they are a serious offence and a blot on the collective national pride. In 1990, the Asian Labour Monitor recorded that over 20 per cent of the Gross National Product of India is contributed by children. What is the percentage contribution today, when there are so many more in the workforce?

To find out we need to begin with some basic questions, the answers to which are not easily available. How many child labourers are there in a single colony in Bangalore, for instance? What is the range of their earnings? How many sectors are children engaged in? What are their earnings from one colony alone? What is their percentage contribution to the national GDP?

No one knows or records these answers, as the government has found an easy way to eradicate child labour. Just remove them from the records!

Kavita Ratna, the Director of Communications from the Concerned for Working Children (CWC) at L B Shastry Nagar says that there is no mechanism at either the labour department or the police station to count the number of working children in an area of the city. It is difficult to keep tabs because the entry and exit points are different for children in each sector, she says.

National figures are outdated, and vague at best. The National Sample Survey 2000, reports that 16.4 million Indian children aged 5-14 years are ‘engaged in economic activities and domestic or non-remunerative work’. Tens of thousands are from Bangalore alone.

Yet, if these figures indicate an enormous wealth of untapped potential, they also tell a story of failed promises. “The government was supposed to have a child labour-free country by 2007,” informs Lakshapathi, the founder of Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA) at Vimanapura. Every year, he points out, the Labour Commission is supposed to release Rs 6 crore for the cause of eradication of child labour. However, in the last nine years, perhaps just nine crore have been released in all.

What it indicates, perhaps, is not merely the lack of funds, but an abundance of confusion and a dearth of political will. “It is obvious to all that child labour is not eradicated, but is still thriving. Karnataka and a few other states have asked the government to extend the deadline by five more years,” says Lakshapathi. “Ask the government what it has done in this direction.”

In early June, the Karnataka Joint Labour Commissioner, Manjunath Sastry, was extremely busy with preparations for the then forthcoming June 12 International Child Labour Day celebrations, at Bal Bhavan. For five minutes, he explained why he could not spare two minutes to talk about the issue of child labour. “Till June 12th, 2 p.m., I cannot talk to anyone,” he said. He recommended his junior, Vincent Concessao, for reference.

But Concessao pleaded his inability to talk due to the celebrations, and advised that the Joint Labour Commissioner be contacted! Back then to Sastry. He now suggested that we try the Commissioner, K S Manjunath, and mentioned that he himself is anyway not allowed to talk unless permission is taken from Manjunath, who by the way is out of town, he adds. He then recommends the Director, Pasha, who informs that it is not his purview, and instead, suggests the Principal Secretary and Labour Minister, who were all in turn reported to be busy with the June 12 preparations! Obviously, neither Mahadev nor Rajeshwari figure high on the list of priorities.

Yet, recently, there has been the dramatisation of the government’s exhibition of zeal in the raid and ‘rescue’ of employed children. Nobody knows the point of these raids, though. As Nandana Reddy, Director of Development, CWC, put it: “With no tangible alternatives being offered, what will be the fate of these children? Will their families welcome this move or will it mean that their last straw of survival has been rudely snatched away?”

Which brings us to a full circle, as we ask what the ban on child labour does in the first place. Ironically, it does make one thing clear—-it effectively criminalises the most peaceful, docile and victimized working population of the country, even as it drags the issue of their contribution to the GNP into the a grey area of speculation.

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