Wednesday, August 02, 2006

India Bans Domestic Child Labour ...

Starting October 10 it will be illegal to hire anyone under the age of 14 -- this applies not just to industry, but road-side stalls, dhabas, restaurants, spas and private households.

The numbers on child labor in India are horrific. There are also existing laws on the book, but like all such things here, implementation is pathetic.

It's clear that child labor is a manifestation of extreme poverty (and, I'm sure, has been common throughout human history until modern times). It's eradication is, therefore, tied to efforts to eliminate abject poverty, and thus involve tackling many complex realities.

This is not to say that one can just ignore the problem and say, "oh well, it'll take care of itself with 'progress.'" Creating a culture of intolerance is important -- and legislative efforts are part of that. The only problem is that legislative efforts rarely work in India. The respect for the rule of law is partial at best. Unless there is a strong will for enforcement, this law will be just another tool for lower policemen and inspectors to harass employers (and collect their hafta, bribe), and a showcase for political rhetoric for the ruling party. The children will not benefit.

And say it is enforced -- I'm not clear what the exact penalties are. Fines? Too lenient. Imprisonment? Let's not even talk about bringing the courts into this -- what will the children freed up do? One would like to think that they'd return to a "normal childhood." But without proper incentives, impoverished parents will find another way to utilize their children as sources of income. Like in so many other things, economics matters and ignoring it often brings one's efforts to nought.

As it is the streets of urban India are filled with legions of children who swarm the traffic at every stoplight, tapping on the window, making one squirm, as -- for a fraction of a second that our dulled consciences let their guard down -- the horror of the reality on the other side invades our clean aircondtioned cocoons.

Yes, Cry. CRY. Want to help? Go visit Child Relief and You.

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assiniboine said...

And, what's more, how to define what is objectionable exploitation of child labour as opposed to acceptable child labour. Milking the cows and feeding the chickens on the family farm before school? Helping out in the store room after school in the family convenience store? A bit like Eleanor Roosevelt's well-intentioned drafting committee for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that actually contemplated Hitler's Nuremburg Laws and was then objected to by Muslim states on the basis that it seemed to catch arranged marriage and differential civil rights between the genders. (Not that Eleanor Roosevelt had any use whatever for Arabs, unfortunately....) And HOW is one to deal with outright child beggars? Impossible to implement and enforce or even, as I say, cogently and compendiously draft, much less interpret, but perhaps this legislation at least states the the moral opprobrium in which the state holds a wrong, however ineffectually that opprobrium can be manifested.

Gashwin said...

Yep yep, I like that last line. And it will also be a good political tool for the rulers to stay on to their gaddis (seats of power)

assiniboine said...

Ooh, snarky!

I used to know a 6-foot tall redhead (she married a mountie, perhaps needless to say) who of course attracted hoardes of beggar children as she traversed India. (Sometime I'll show you a photo of the two of us on an elephant at Amber -- just like Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill.) She asked someone local how she could possibly deal with all this, knowing as she did that this was, in effect, more or less the equivalent of the kids' working in the family business; feeling pangs of guilt; not wanting to encourage a particularly invidious form of exploitation of children. Answer: offer them food, not money. So she took a little party into a Kwality restaurant -- the management was befuddled, not entirely pleased, but ultimately mildly amused -- and told them to order whatever they wanted. Well, it was bread and butter that they wanted. How apt.

But, you know, the last time I passed through Karachi (a city largely inhabited by Mohajirs from post-Partition India, not indigenous Sindhis) I was urgently asked to compare Bombay and Karachi. Silly me, I honestly answered that Bombay is beset with social and economic stratification, but it is economically booming and, let's face it, Karachi ain't. Wrong answer. "No, you are wrong. Karachi is much more successful and prosperous." Oh yes, of course...I knew that. (Actually it's a godforsaken hole but don't quote me on that.) What I SHOULD have said is that there are NO BEGGARS. Well if one doesn't count the hijras. Thumbs up for zakat -- the locals all mightily resent the government collecting it on behalf of the poor, but the fact is it really does seem to have the effect of eliminating beggars. And that is something nice to be said about Karachi.

Gashwin said...

You've mentioned this about the zakat in Pakistan before. It's hard for an Indian to believe that anything is better acorss the border ... :) ... but this surely would be one of those things!

Sandhya said...


What struck me was the pessimism inherent in the original post!
Let me try and bust a few myths- Child labour is caused by poverty. That's only one half of the coin. The other half is that it causes poverty. How? A child who is working earns less money (ofcourse s/he is cheap labour). S/he doesn't attend school and thus misses out on the opportunity to carve a better future. Thus as his age increases, he would not earn more money but infact earn lesser than he would have had he been educated. Now you would say, if he had the money to be educated, why would he work? Well, what are governments there for? And what is the society there for if we as people can't put pressure on the government to do its duty towards the children. Education is an investment that every country should make to ensure a prosperous future for its citizens of tomorrow.

I work for an NGO called Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) which is leading the movement against child labour from the front. Your questions about child labour, poverty are completely valid and you will find an answer, a pragamatic answer in our work. I invite you to visit and

We are planning a campaign to make the general public aware of the law banning employment of children in homes and at dhabas/restuarants etc. To know more about the campaign please visit our website. You could also mail me at

What we need is hope coupled with praamatic approach in dealing with the problem.