Middle-class muddle: how it's not helping Satyarthi's cause

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2014 12:30 IST

Kailash Satyarthi’s Nobel feat made us proud. Our very own Dilliwallah operating from a small office in Kalkaji is now one of the world’s most feted figures. His Twitter followers grew by 4,300 in just 90 minutes of the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. A Google search on his name was throwing up more than 800,000 results on Sunday.

But how much do we really know about this quiet, amiable gentleman or the cause he has been fighting for close to three decades? Yes, we know he works for abolition of child labour, which is banned in India. But we still hear horror stories of enslavement and torture of children working in homes, eateries, grocery stores and sweatshops that shame Delhi time and again.

Last year, a survey of 1,575 employers conducted by Child Rights and You (CRY) on the attitudes and beliefs about child labour in Delhi showed that 20% of the respondents in south Delhi thought that anyone over the age of 10 was not a child. "These people would possibly have no hesitation in hiring a child as young as 10 years. Not only this, many people consider that a child should not only study, but work as well," the study read.

What was more shocking was that 42% employers felt that children were as efficient as adults in carrying out any activity, 30% said that children below 18 should be paid less than adults, and 56% had seen children who didn’t go to school but did nothing about it.

As child labour is banned in India, the government has legal obligations and, prodded by voluntary groups, conducts occasional raids. Rescued children are put in temporary shelters. After age verification -- the process may take anything between a few days to months – they are sent home, with a release certificate and R20,000, if the child has been rescued under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.

At least 1,000 child workers are rescued every year in Delhi. Legal provisions for rehabilitation demand these kids are sent to schools and their families provided with earning assets. But nobody bothers to find out if they are not back in sweatshops or dhabas in another city or if they have starved to death.

But rehab, even when proper, is only a mopping up exercise. Parents push their young children into the labour market not because they are not necessarily evil but because they are desperately poor. The administration cannot fine the poor parents. If they are put behind bars, their children will anyway suffer. In a predominantly poor country, it is difficult to tackle the malady at its supply end. The only remedy is to reduce the demand.

The government could start by breaking the supply rings, which is nothing but trafficking rackets working in the garb of placement agencies that employ agents to bring thousands of children to Delhi and other metros from impoverished, desperate villages. Child rights activists tell us that it is now more profitable and less risky for traffickers to employ young girls as domestic helps than to sell them to brothels.

The demand for underage domestic helps is largely fuelled by middle-class homes in cities. Mumbai has revised its housing byelaws, making it mandatory for the managing committees of housing societies to report to police or the labour commissioner any instance of a resident or a contractor employing child labour.
The Delhi High Court set a deadline of October 25 for the government to compulsorily register all private placement agencies. This, experts say, is the best way to break these cartels of organised crime.

Enforced strictly, heavy penalties and intimidating jail term should be able to discourage demand across all sectors. Along with punitive action, the solution also requires changed mindsets. Employing an underage to do household chores is not an act of philanthropy, as many of us tend to believe. It denies, if nothing else, her right to education. Childhood is a gift that no child should have to earn. If we can’t respect it, we don’t belong to this celebration of Satyarthi’s Nobel.

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