The phrase – 'Today's children are the citizens of tomorrow' – has fallen between the cracks, given the prevailing child labour across the country. Children are made to work as slaves in factories, fields, and are also self-employed as, milkman, rag-pickers, shoe-polisher and rickshaw pullers.
The Global Child Labor Index 2012, prepared by Maplecroft, ranks India 27th on the list of countries where children are at risk of being victim to child labour. “I give all the money I earn to my mom. If I give the money to my dad, he will spend it on alcohol,” says Priya, who sells candies at Besant Nagar beach in Eastern Chennai. Priya, who goes to a government school in Adyar, works as a candy-seller after school because her family is facing acute financial crisis. “I want to be in the army when I grow up,” she adds in a cheerful tone. There are many other girls like Priya who fall prey to menial jobs and are deprived of a proper childhood.
Throughout the American history, forms of child labor have existed, like apprenticed servitude and child slavery. In the 19th century Britain faced the wrath of industrialization, the labourers were forced to work in factories, children were often preferred, as they were more cheaper, and manageable and less likely to strike. However, growing opposition to child labor in the North resulted in many factories to move to the South. By 1900, there were a few anti-child labour laws but the states varied considerably on their content and degree of enforcement. Many American children worked in, glass factories, mines, textiles, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, peddlers etc. Child Labour then was unchecked and unbounded.
History of child labour is well versed in some of the poems scripted in the turbulent 19th century. "The Chimney Sweeper" by William Blake, is a poem published in Songs of Innocence in 1789, wherein the poet talks about the harsh nature of child labour, by depicting the poignant life of Tom Drake.
"When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep"
The poem is set against the gloomy background of child labor that was prominent in England in the late 18th and 19th century. At the premature age of five, boys were sold to clean chimneys, by their own families. These children were exploited and had a minuscule existence that was socially acknowledged at the time.
In India many constitutional and legal provisions have been formulated to deal with the problem of child labour. The Article 24 of the Indian Constitution states that "no child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment". The child labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986, is the first comprehensive legislation which prohibits employment of children below 14 years in industries and hazardous occupations.
Recently, in 2009, by making elementary education the right of every child, India has nevertheless made a tangible effort to address this issue, thereby establishing the framework for providing free and compulsory quality primary education for all children. Sadly, statistics reveal every one of two children in India; nearly 18 million children, live on the streets. According to figures from the National Sample Survey 2009-2010, around five million children (age 5-14 years) are labourers.
Another major concern is that most of the child labourers go undetected. Laws formulated to protect children from hazardous labour are not enforced. The Labor Ministry is examining a proposal to amend the Child Labor (Prohibition) Act to extend the age bar on child labour from 14 years to 18 years and a fine of Rs 20,000 will be imposed on the employer of such children. After Delhi, Rajasthan is the second state which has put the age limit at 18 years.
The growing pace of economic development has resulted in a new type of labourer called the migrant labour. Perpetual poverty and unemployment in rural India have prompted people to seek work in the big cities.
Bhushan, a fourteen-year old child labourer from Bihar, who works as a cleaner at BBC Foods in Tambaram, said: "I have four brothers and three sisters. I came to Chennai to look for work with my friend." Bhushan, who has never had any formal education, was born to a family of peasants.
Sushant, a shy thirteen-year old boy from Midnapore, West Bengal, who works at a tea stall in Chennai, said: "My mother died last year, so I came here with my father.” His father added in a painful voice, “No one understands our problems. Only the people who face adverse conditions realize how difficult it is to be a migrant labourer.” Contractors lure them into going to various places with the promise of jobs and good earnings, later forcing them to work in confinement at a minimum wage. The work sites are not women-friendly. The labourers face health and life risks, lack secure shelter, toilet and drinking water for young children.
Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and it hinders children's development, potentially leading to lifelong damage. There is a strong link between poverty and child labour, and the later bring about poverty across generations by keeping children of the poor out of school and limiting their prospects for upward social mobility. There are many NGO's in Chennai trying their best to tackle this plague that is corrupting India.
An NGO named Cholai, is trying their best to prevent children from working in hazardous environment like mining , match firecracker industry by providing better Health, Educational and Recreation facilities. According to Murali, a member of Cholai, providing education, and making them aware about the difference in a job with education and without education is very crucial.
Mr Murali said "We are giving them education with motivation, which will lesser the chance of dropout in school." He also added that the children are lured towards such factories for easy money as most of come from poor family and our NGO is motivating the parents to send their kids to school with awareness programs.
Another NGO named Anusuya Development for Women and Children, is working for the rights of women and children on the basis of the Constitution of India and internationally accepted standards of human rights. Mr Devendra Oza, former IAS officer and the founder of Anusuya said, "Me and my team are working against child labor, bonded labor, trafficking in human beings. We are also helping women and children in situations of violence or serious social conflict"
This NGO insists that the problem of child labour can be eradicated with the help of women as empowering of women will indirectly help in child's development. When a woman is equipped with proper resources, she can help ensure that her children get education and not get tricked into child labour.
Women are the most vulnerable group in society. Whatever happen in the society has an immediate impact on women, which in turn effects children. We work for empowerment, organization and sustainability, Ozha added. Mr Ozha also said that they make the children and their parents take oath to not get their children married before the age of 18, and let them complete their basic education.
Banning child labour without tackling poverty does not serve the purpose. Poverty and lack of social security are the root causes of child labour. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor adversely affects children more than any other age group. Lack of quality universal education also compels children to drop out of school and enter the labour force.
There remains much work to be done for their empowerment. The restriction of child labour is a pre-requisite for social security and health of the future generation. The provisions and laws formulated have not borne much fruit and India has a long way to go before it becomes a "child-labour" free country.
A picture story on Child Labour http://photopeach.com/album/mdbpmn