Will the wheel turn towards the rights of children?

Allowing children to work in ‘family enterprises’ amounts to perpetuating the caste system under the guise of ‘traditional occupations’.

He nurtures a dream and a future wherein he would help people in need in his home District by occupying the position of a District Collector. Today, you will find him in construction sites on weekends and holidays and in the school on weekdays, working very hard to earn some additional money for his family. He lost his father when he was in 5th class, but has not lost his hope and motivation to achieve something big in his life soon and to bring change in the lives of people around him. Saravanan (name changed) is from Agraharam Village, in Ayothipattinam Taluk, near Salem. Dalits and other marginalized communities are the inhabitants of this village.

Saravanan has joined 12th class this year and continues to be an active member of the Children’s Collective at Agraharam village for the past 5 years. Besides his mother, Saravanan has got an elder brother who is married and working as a pourakarmika on contract basis. His two elder sisters got married and his younger brother Chinna Raju (name changed) is studying in 9th standard. He is also a member of the children’s collective. Ever since his father died due to excessive consumption of alcohol, the burden of maintaining the family fell on his mother, younger brother and himself. After some time, his mother became sick and was not able to work. Hence, Saravanan and his brother worked on weekends and holidays at construction sites and supplemented the family income. They are paid Rs. 80 -150/- per day. They continue to work even today and as well continue their studies.

How difficult is it to combine the backbreaking work at the construction sites on weekends and resume their studies on weekdays? According to Saravanan, the work at construction involves lifting and carrying materials and is very difficult for him and his brother. They get body pain, frequent headaches and are always under strain. On school days, they are not able to be active, feel lazy and are unable to find time to do their home work. Who can blame them? They have to get ready early and go to school in order to catch up with their home work and assignments. Needless to say they are more prone to getting respiratory diseases later in life as they are exposed to dust at the work site constantly. Saravanan said that he could have scored better marks in 10th and 12th standard, if he had more time for study on weekdays or weekends, but there was no choice. He further added that the Government should take the responsibility for providing alternate income to poverty stricken families like theirs so that children will not be required to work.

Salem People’s Trust (SPT), the partner organization of CRY has been working with this community for the last 5 years, mobilized the community, and facilitated ration cards for many families including Saravanan’s family. Now they are able to get food grains at cheaper rates. As part of its RTE campaign, SPT team admitted several students from Dalit families to a private-aided school under RTE provisions and Saravanan’s brother (Chinna Raju) has also got admission in this school and continues his schooling.Like Saravanan, there are thousands of children living a very hard life, shouldering the family responsibilities and having a dream to build a better life for themselves. Looking at the life of Saravanan, many questions arise in our mind. Does the work performed by children not interfere with their studies, impact their health and well-being? Is working in the construction site not a hazardous work unsuited to their age? Do these children not have a need to rest, play?

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (Harvard University, 2014) has conducted extensive research on the biology of stress. One of the findings of the study states that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the  body and the brain, with damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan. Yet policies that affect young children generally do not address or even reflect awareness of the degree to which very early exposure to stressful experiences and environments can affect the architecture of the brain, the body’s stress response systems, and a host of health outcomes later in life. As far as the families experiencing chronic poverty are concerned, the report states that such families are likely to have greater exposure to stress as they will have fewer resources to deal with adversity than the general population.

Policy formulation process needs to be informed by on-ground realities; experiences and evidences from the researches and state should strive to create an enabling environment for all children to realize their potential. But the recent actions of the state are far removed from the reality. The Centre has proposed a set of amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986 but these raises serious doubts and concerns. While the proposal to amend the Act is long overdue, the worrying factor is its intention to exempt the ban on child labour in family enterprises. Poverty and socio-economic conditions in the country have been cited as reasons to justify children helping their family in certain occupations. In fact, the proposed amendment potentially opens excuses that will sustain or even encourage child labour. The government needs to recognize that family enterprises can also be exploitative and oppressive for children. It would be a tough task to govern and regulate family enterprises which fall under unorganized category.

Further, amendments such as this will adversely affect the most vulnerable groups – girl children, children from Dalit and minority communities who work due to extreme poverty and will ultimately be denied of their childhood and basic rights. Child rights activists raise questions as to whether the state is so equipped to check every house to find out the nature of the work being undertaken. That allowing children to work in ‘family enterprises’ amounts to perpetuating the caste system under the guise of ‘traditional occupations’ and the government conceding that it is incapable of alleviating poverty in the country. It was expected of the government to take proactive steps to align the CLPR Act with the Right to Education Act and UN CRC and ban all forms of child labour up to the age of 18 years but this has been conveniently ignored.

According to Edmonds and Pavcnik (Child Labour in Global Economy, 2005) who analyzed UNICEF data reported that 64.6% of children aged 5–14 years were engaged in domestic work and 25% were engaged in market work. Of those engaged in market work, more than 83% were working on the family farm or in the family business. Only 8.2% of children worked outside the family and only 2.4% did so for pay. The picture that emerges from the UNICEF data is that for the overwhelming proportion of working children, their labour is performed in a family context. The proposed amendment will only formalize/ legalize child labour within the family and perpetuate child labour.

It is quite disappointing that the budget allocation for the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been reduced from Rs.18,588 crore to Rs.10,382 crore this year. The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy growth and development of the next generation. Going by the policy pronouncements and actions, it appears that the state is not yet made up its mind to end the child labour soon.

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