Whose ‘Right’ is it Anyway ?

On World Day against Child Labour, time to tackle ignorance and poverty

Photo: Aditi Gautam

Abir (name changed) is a 14-year-old from Palashpai village in West Midnapore district in West Bengal in India. Three years ago, his parents, both casual labourers, had taken him off school and sent him to live with his maternal uncle in Kolaghat, East Midnapore, in other part of the state. The boy had asked why, but got no answers. The next 18 months, he spent long hard days at a makeshift garment factory, toiling it out with a group of around 15 kids, aged between 14-18. All they would get was a watery meal at around noon, a meagre Rs 150 as promised ‘wages’, unhygienic conditions to work in, and of course taunts, abuses and jeers, came in abundance, for free! 18 months in a boy’s life, lost in darkness

The reality, the mindset

Every year, around 12 June, the focus is pointedly back on ‘Child Labour’ and how it slowly eats into the right of children to live a happy and healthy childhood. Despite the prominent discourse on ways to eradicate it, in India and indeed across the world, child labour continues to thrive, throughout seasons and for many reasons. The most important of them: poverty.

Child labour exists, because there is poverty. A reality, and, also a mindset, that perpetuates this reality. A child becomes a ‘labourer’ because his/her parents need more money to sustain a livelihood. They find the easiest option available to them – their child who is not yet 18, but old and capable enough to work alongside them on the field, or at a factory, in a restaurant. They don’t understand the harm they are doing by making him/her work at a time he/she should be attending school.

The awareness is missing, because more often than not, they (the parents) too have never been to school or completed education. Labour to earn (and eat) is a primal necessity. Dropping out from school is acceptable. Everything else is secondary.  The result: More children at work, fewer of them in school. A growing workforce below 18, even as higher education and formal skills take a backseat for yet another generation. It’s a vicious circle that’s breeds intergenerational poverty and eventually, more children in unorganized workforce.

Question of rights, right?

Often, entangled in the quagmire of action-steps-eradication is the debate on the basic rights of a child, rights that are violated with impunity and are under threat every minute of his/her childhood, if he/she happens to hail from a poverty-ridden family.

Child labour is ‘forced’ in every sense of the term, because children are never asked whether they want to work. They are simply told to do so. They are taught to believe that ‘labour’ gets him/her money at the end of the day. Attending school doesn’t fetch any immediate rewards, does it? Instead, it costs an extra fortune. The children, who are too young to understand the gravity of the situation, agree, willingly or unwillingly.

In Abir’s case, nobody was bothered about what the boy was losing out on, as indeed were the other children working alongside him. The parents were relived to get some money and the employer was happy to have some work done at his factory, for next to nothing. For both, the money ‘saved’ was far more important than any other considerations. They knew Abir (and the other children) would never protest and demand their ‘rights’ or form a union, as adults do – the children could be coerced or bullied into slogging away silently. As for the children themselves, they toiled away, oblivious to the fact that with every passing minute, they were losing out on something very precious – their right to a happy and healthy childhood.

Abir managed to come of this ordeal recently, thanks to prompt and planned action by the VLCPC or Village Level Child Protection Committee in his native village of Palashpai, under the guidance of the BDO (Block Development Officer) and the joint BDO and the CRY team working in the area. The boy has been put back in school, and arrangements have been made for him to stay in a hostel, free of cost.

The boy is looking ahead to a new life, hopefully, but what about the other kids who were working with him? What about their rights as children? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (commonly abbreviated as the CRC or UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. Three core principles of UNCRC centre around the best interests of the child as a primary consideration, the right of children to survival and development and the right of children to express their views freely on all matters affecting them.

During Abir’s ordeal, were any of the core principles of UNCRC upheld, or followed? None at all. How many people in India are aware of the UNCRC and its declaration on the ‘rights’ of a child? How many know that making a child below 14 as work as ‘labour’ is an offence by law? Did Abir’s parents know it when they sent him to work? Did his employer know it when he made him and the other kids work in his factory? Maybe they did, or maybe they didn’t. Maybe, they were driven by compulsions of their own.

Child labour is a rigmarole that cannot be done away overnight. Sweeping changes have to be made at the grassroots, institutional level and policy level to put in place a mechanism that addresses this issue with a multi-pronged approach – alleviating poverty, educating children, spreading awareness, cracking down on offenders and a rehabilitation plan for children brought back from the throes.

West Midnapore is one of the five districts where a joint initiative by CRY and a partner organization is trying to embed child rights in the Gram Panchayat Development Plans in select panchayats, in a bid to raise awareness about child rights and related issues.

One of the key action points in the intervention is a sustained campaign against child labour. The mechanism is simple and basic: Keep a close watch on children in vulnerable families. If a boy stops coming to school suddenly, start looking. Spreading awareness about the perils of child labour among parents is of paramount importance. Basic steps such as increased monitoring and check at the village level can prevent children from falling into hard labour.

Looking ahead

As per Census 2011, there are 10.1 million children working as labour in the country – 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. 12 years down the line, the count has probably gone up many-fold.

Having said that, Abir and his journey holds hope. In hinterland India, ‘rights’ of children are being protected and kids are being rescued and brought back to mainstream through joint intervention by government and non-government stakeholders. It’s a work in progress, and hopefully, by the time another June 12 comes around, there will be many more such positive stories to share.

Author of the article Trina Chakrabarti is the Regional Director (East) Child Rights and You (CRY). A Chevening Scholar from the University of Essex, Trina joined CRY in 2002 as a part of the Development Support team and went on to lead Volunteer Action before taking on Director role for the East. Trina believes that children can change the world and hopes to make a difference in children’s lives through her work with CRY.