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Labouring under a false reality

The fact that child participants in reality shows now raise more hackles than the thousands who labour without pay or are trafficked out, shows how we have learnt to deal with ‘reality’ in India, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:34 IST

Trivial pursuit, such as adding up the grocery bill. The condescension implied is misplaced. Adults almost never get these things right.

Four months after a young girl became paralysed following scathing criticism by judges on a Bengali game show, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has proposed to ban children below the age of 16 from reality shows. The move is belated and rather curious — the victim, Sinjini Sengupta, was, in fact, 16 years old.

Filmi song and dance shows are enormously popular for their unique charm: kids dressing up and behaving like adults.

People find it cute. Cigar-chomping chimps in leisure suits were once popular on American TV for similar reasons. Animal rights activists objected in that case, just as proponents of the rights of children have weighed in now. Accelerating a natural process, whether evolution or personal growth, is cruel and ethically wrong.

In reality shows, apart from play-acting at being adult, kids are also subjected to uniquely adult pressures: social competition, public criticism and the gratuitous vileness popularised by The Weakest Link (remade in India as Kamzor Kadi Kaun). Which is why the NCPCR has recommended on-set counselling for children and the screening of parents, who often egg their children on in the search for instant fame.

Well done. But there’s class interest at work here. The charter of the NCPCR reflects the interests of children of all sections: “Children affected by terrorism, communal violence, riots, natural disaster, domestic violence, HIV/Aids, trafficking, maltreatment, torture and exploitation, pornography and prostitution.” But there is more public concern about reality TV than, say, the street kid who has helped the police make a sketch of one of the Delhi bombers, and who is now back on the street with no security. India has become a huge blot on the world map of child trafficking and prostitution and child labour remains an everyday reality, but we have become inured to these things.

In pop culture, the underprivileged child enjoys star billing. Charles Dickens, who worked in a factory as a child himself, was so shocked to see children doing the most hazardous work in mines that he famously resolved to strike “a hammer-blow” on their behalf. Hence his obsession with child characters, one of whom, who asked for more, remains a household name.

Similarly, Mark Twain is best remembered for Tom Sawyer. In India, Salaam Bombay became a cult movie and Paapi Pet, a story about railway children and the police by the Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak, is only the most disturbing element in a large body of work in several languages. So there is serious cultural concern about child rights, but it rarely translates into public action in the reality beyond reality TV.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)