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For some, even childhood is a curse!

Child labour is a gruesome reality for over 16.5 mn children in India. CRY CEO Ingrid Srinath, in an e-mail interview to Manali Vaish, talks about CRY’s efforts to address the issue.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2007 21:50 IST
Manali Vaish

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860.

Even after 60 years of independence the menace of child labour is a gruesome reality for more than 16.5 million children in India. CRY CEO Ingrid Srinath, in an e-mail interview to HindustanTimes.com’s Manali Vaish, talks about CRY’s efforts to address the issue.

Q1. What do you think of the current scenario of child labour in India?

India has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest population of child labourers on our planet, 16.57 million, if you believe the official statistics, which do not include children who work while going to school as well as children aged between 15 and 17 years. From mines, factories and brick kilns to brothels, dhabas and middle-class homes, child labourers are everywhere one chooses to cast one's gaze. The constitutional guarantees under the Fundamental Right to Education, the Child Labour Act and the UN Child Rights Charter remain paper promises at best. Successive governments, for 60 years, have clearly not had the political will to make them a reality. And we, as citizens, have permitted them to get away with their inaction.

Q2. The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act was made in 1986. 21 years is a long time. What has been the progress so far? Are the children aware of their own rights?

In limiting the prohibition of child labour to select sectors and by purporting to 'regulate' it, the Act confers legitimacy on child labour in all other sectors. This is a violation of the Right to Education and in conflict with the basic guarantees under the right to life as well. The low number of prosecutions, just over 200, or an average of 10 per year, the even lower number of convictions, and the paltry sentences meted out when convictions have occurred, reveal the insincerity of the Indian State - executive, judiciary and legislature alike - towards our children. For the vast majority of children, spending their childhoods in servitude, seems to be the natural order of things. They, and their families, will not eat if they do not work. The few who are rescued or rehabilitated, thanks to ad hoc interventions by NGOs, do become aware of their rights and many of these kids have become fearless crusaders in their own communities, helping to make other children and parents aware of their rights.

Q3. Parents play a big role in whatever their children do. Do you think punishing only the employer rescues the child? He might be forced again by parents to get back to work. Is this aspect properly addressed in the Act?

The average parent, even the poorest, does not want their child to work. Every study on the subject has shown that nearly 100% of parents want their children to get an education. Many impoverished parents risk debt, destitution and worse, to keep their children in school. In CRY's experience, it is usually hopelessly inadequate livelihoods and absent to poor schooling that force parents to put their children to work. Millions of children across India are themselves battling long distances, social barriers of caste and gender and putting in countless hours of unrelenting effort to get to school and stay in school despite the odds stacked against them. Until the government actually ensures that all our children have access to equitable education of adequate quality it is in no position to pass the buck to parents.

Q4. Do you think banning child labour really helps? Many children have a family to support, they work for a living. What is CRY doing to help such children?

The legal ban by itself is insufficient, but necessary. If it were expanded to include every form of child labour, seriously enforced, and supplemented with both, equal access to quality education for all and livelihood guarantees to parents, it can achieve results. CRY's approach is to identify the underlying root causes of the problem - gender, caste, livelihood, displacement, migration and governance - and empower marginalised communities to eliminate these obstacles. Each year, thanks to the support from CRY, hundreds of village and slum communities across India free themselves of child labour. Thousands of kids are liberated from labour, enrolled in mainstream schools and provided the support they need to stay there. And because the solutions address the root causes and are owned and driven by the children and communities themselves, the change is irreversible.

Q5. Suppose a child wishes to finance his education till high school. This would require him to work. Is there any provision for such children in the Act? What is CRY doing to help them?

The Fundamental Right to Education is supposed to guarantee every Indian child from 6-14 years free and compulsory education. While it is not completely adequate, it should, in principle, mean that no child needs to finance his or her own high-school education. CRY works at every level to remedy the situation. At the local community level we support marginalised communities in 20 states to ensure adequate livelihoods, availability of and access to formal government schools and health services, good governance and implementation of the policies that are supposed to protect human rights in general and child rights in particular. Where necessary, we also support interim non-formal schooling till more permanent solutions can be achieved. In 16 states, and at the national level, CRY convenes alliances of grassroots organisations to advocate for policies that are equitable, just and protect all the rights of children. CRY volunteers in 5 cities have formed citizen's groups that work in their own local communities to raise awareness and to assist parents in achieving their children's rights. CRY representatives also work with privileged children in 7 cities and through our website www.cry.org to build awareness of the situation of their marginalised counterparts. Simultaneously, through its fundraising operations, events and media advocacy, CRY tries to sensitise educated, middle-class and diaspora Indians on the need for them to take action to ensure these rights.

Q6. Could you summarise CRY's work and efforts to curb child labour, rehabilitating children and educating them about their rights.

In the 28 years that CRY has been working with and for children's rights, we have learned three fundamental lessons that shape our strategy. One, that sustainable change is only possible when children and communities are themselves empowered to address the root-causes of their marginalisation - economic, social and political. Second, that piece-meal, ad hoc initiatives, however well-intentioned, cannot achieve change of the depth and scale necessary. It requires both, policies that are designed based on the real interests of marginalised children and empowered communities to ensure their implementation. And finally, that philanthropy alone cannot begin to make a dent in the situation. We need advocacy that activates citizens from every walk of life to send our politicians and bureaucrats a strong message that we will not tolerate their apathy towards, and continued neglect of, the rights of India's children. In order to achieve this, CRY works to demonstrate that sustainable change is, in fact, possible, to build awareness of child rights across the socio-economic spectrum, and to advocate for coherent, comprehensive child-friendly policies.