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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Abolish child labour?

Here is a front page article from The Statesman dated September 2, 2012, saying how despite existing laws, abolition of child labour in India is still a far cry. Do read it first before continuing to read this post.

I am aware that a) India still has probably the largest child labour force in the world, b) it prevails to this day not only because of an exploding population and widespread poverty, but also because prevailing social attitudes treat it as not really a great national shame but as at most a necessary evil which ought to be winked at while other, more ‘pressing’ problems are being solved, c) millions of children are paid a pittance for backbreaking labour under nasty or dangerous conditions, and have no better future to look forward to, and d) India will never be acknowledged as a ‘developed’ nation while major social evils such as this continue to fester.

This is an issue which has exercised my mind for ages – certainly since my college days (remember, I read economics, and engaged in journalism, and saw all kinds of socio-political activities from close quarters, besides teaching youngsters for three decades now, and watching them grow up into adult citizens). My opinions have changed over time, so that today I am far more doubtful about whether child labour is at all such a great evil as it is fashionable in elite circles to call it these days, and whether abolishing it entirely would be such a very good thing for this country. Read me out before clamouring that I be lynched right away…

Don’t get me wrong: of course I am all for doing away with the utterly inhuman conditions in which so many children have to slave – conditions which any civilized country would regard as unworthy even of animals – and I am all for giving them decent wages, which would allow them to make substantial contributions to the family budget, perhaps lifting them above the poverty line (I am talking of the kind of family where daddy is a rickshaw puller, say, and mummy works in five houses as a domestic help: certainly if two children bring in at least five thousand a month extra, that would make a very big difference to the kind of lives they live). I am all for making more stringent laws and taxing people like us and much richer much more heavily, besides stricter birth control and widespread social propaganda, so that such things can be brought to pass, and soon. Other countries have done it, so we have no excuse for postponing it for ever.

But consider also, what will happen when all children can afford to live present-day middle-  and upper class lifestyles: the sort of children I almost exclusively deal with. My quarrel is with the idea that children should not work at all, and isn’t that what this class of children have become used to? Who benefits from that: they themselves, their families or society as a whole? Most of these kids have become used to pampered, wasteful living, so they are growing simultaneously fat and fat headed. Few of them read anything unless absolutely under compulsion (meaning examinations); work means nothing more than scurrying round the clock from one tuition to another (many of which have become little more than adda-s!). Most don’t even have serious hobbies to pursue, and most can’t or don’t want to do the simplest household chores unless forced, and then they do it very clumsily, with very bad grace, as if they are doing their parents huge favours. Most treat their parents as no more than drudges who supply money and goodies, and yet are so unthinkably dependent (to people like me, who have been almost completely independent since age 17-18) that leave alone doing anything creative or socially useful on their own, they can’t even travel around town without their parents’ cars and chaperoning, nor handle their own bank accounts (most parents can’t dream of letting them, either, but that’s only part of my complaint). Most of these people, as I have written here more than once before, even when they say they are going to college to get a ‘higher education’, learn so little about such trivial things (what you need to become a hotel valet or an optometrist or a BPO data-entry operator or an airline stewardess or sales agent and that sort of thing) at such great expense that they are, frankly, no better than what economists call ‘disguised unemployed’, wasting three or four years of their lives in what they call ‘having fun’, and then going on to work at things which neither bring them glory nor joy nor very respectable incomes, and to produce more babies to mould in their own likeness… don’t children who work at brick kilns or dhabas or roadside auto repair shops or jewellery factories or even households contribute substantially more to the world at large as much as to their near and dear ones, if only by not living the lives of parasites – very politically incorrect as this may sound?

And has a moderate amount of useful work, no matter how humble, ever hurt anybody as much as lack of occupation does? Forget geniuses of the Dickens and Edison and Faraday and Chaplin type who started working in their mid-teens – the world will probably see the like no more – but even ordinary, humble, routine work has enormous benefits for everybody, doesn’t it, if only by keeping people healthy and out of mischief? Why should I want, and all society want, that our children should be basically idle till they are well past 20? And what right do parents have to be proud of kids who are good for nothing, even the small minority among them who do well in examinations but cannot change a fuse or give an accident victim first aid or stand up to bullies on the road?


Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

When I had read about the amendment passed by the Union Cabinet banning work for children below the age of fourteen years in the newspaper, I had silently wondered about whether this was a good idea in totality and also thought of asking you what you thought about child labour in general. So, this post was edifying in many ways.

I had learnt in Civics in school about the harsh and dangerous conditions in which children are forced to work due to their poverty and how they never get an opportunity to get proper education. Over the years, however, many questions and ideas related to this issue have arisen in my mind.

Firstly and importantly, I have been disillusioned of the notion that higher education means higher income or that all salaried job holders make enough money to live a comfortable life. I know now that many kinds of work like being a shopkeeper, a green grocer, a fish vendor or even a household maid can earn equal to or sometimes more than what many graduates or even post-graduates earn. I know for a fact that a young woman (who hasn’t studied beyond class eight) who cooks in many houses of our housing complex earns more than a certain female pharmaceutical company employee I know who finished her post-graduation. And when people in our country openly agree that education serves the sole purpose of providing a job, what is the harm if children start working and earning from a young age for decent wages in safe and sane working conditions?

While I do strongly advocate weekend schools or night schools for the working children so that they learn basic arithmetic, reading and writing skills, I also wonder what real good the ‘education’ that all the privileged children get these days does to them or the society as a whole. There are an increasing number of children who can’t read or write in either English or Hindi or even in their own mother tongue. Many fail to do even basic mathematical calculations correctly and cannot handle even small amounts of money and there are a pitiable few who are interested in History, Civics or Politics. All that education has given this kind of children are bloated egos. It has also turned them lazy and greedy. They grow up without earning a single penny and without respect for hard work and hard-earned money.

One scene from the movie ‘The greatest game ever played’ has left a strong impression on my mind. Francis Ouimet is a young boy who lives in a modest house facing a huge golf field. Whenever he didn’t have school, he used to help the golf players in the field by being their caddy and by searching for lost golf balls and got paid for his services. He used to bring home the coins he earned and his father put them in a glass jar where he put the family’s savings and said- “This is what we do, we work hard, we bring home the money and the money helps us to live”. What better way to learn such an important lesson of life. Children from such families I think live a more contented life than a software engineer who builds castles in the air and lives off credit cards and his parent’s money.

There is a young boy I know who works in a nearby grocery store. He works very hard and in a very short period of time, the shop owner has become quiet dependent on him for the running of his shop. I respect him more than the typical ‘topper’ of today’s age who does nothing more than cramming a few school textbooks.

I wholeheartedly agree with you Sir that lazy, idle and good-for-nothing children are of no use to the society even if they get ‘good marks’ in the school examinations and that the children working in different places deserve much more respect and attention than them.

Thank you for this post, Sir.

Warm regards

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

I could not have agreed with you more on this. On this note I share another essay which essentially says the same things.
I quote

"I'm suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it's physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I've read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren't crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.
This is from Paul Grahams's essay given at http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html.

with regards,


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Right, my readers have virtually nothing to say. It was such an un-cool subject, after all! We are all members of the privileged and high-aspiring middle class; we dream of going to the IITs and buying iPads and holidaying in Singapore or Dubai, and we talk of hardship and injustice only when American universities deny us scholarships or SC/ST candidates take away 'our' jobs: why on earth should we bother about the wretched of the earth? Just so long as we can buy firecrackers and baubles on the cheap, and our fat mommies and wives are assured of an endless supply of cheap menial labour to do all the household chores for them... besides, having to work while we are still teenagers, when our lives should be devoted to having fun at our parents' expense? Perish the thought.

Navin, thanks for the link. Paul Graham has put across my point exactly. I particularly liked the expression 'earlier teenagers were working dogs, now they are lapdogs...'

Shilpi said...

This is a somewhat short post but as is your mantra you pack in tightly more than just a few streams of thoughts, ideas, and questions. It brought to mind forgotten pieces from my memory chamber of not a few of the children I knew when I was growing up in Durgapur and later on got to see in Cal – children whose parents worked as domestic servants and as physical labourers. It also made me think and write on something that has been plaguing me – about the structure of societies and of collectivities and whether so called collectivist nations are really collective and whether individualist nations are really individualistic as they are seen to be. So thank you and thank you for that comment of yours because otherwise I'd have taken another couple of days to type in a comment.

I’ve got no doubts either that the horrible working conditions under which children work must be removed and it can only be done when those other points you mention (birth control, taxation, implementation of laws regulating working conditions, decent wages, raising the social consciousness) are taken seriously. Child labour of the ugly kind is something that shames me and makes me feel guilt ridden and sometimes it shames me more to think that I don’t think as often about this as I used to but I know what feels most unfair to me is that some children are condemned to never having any hopes to making a bit of a better life for themselves. I remember many years ago, a Marxist professor telling me very cheerfully that they had a very interesting seminar with a fantastic menu over four days at the Hyatt, and I had said ‘…while the children starve and the beggars scrounge…?’ and another professor I remember was most disconcerted when I asked him after he had finished stoutly defending the practice of children working in sweatshops run by MNCs and while the rest of the audience was silent whether he would let his own children or his country’s children work in the same factories. I belong to the same tribe but it makes me sick quite often to think of the vast majority of formal academicians, and this has never really gone away.

Your essay and that article also made me ponder over a question that’s been bugging me for only a few years. Earlier I was convinced that children needed to get an education. The whole issue regarding child labour keeps getting connected with the argument that these children must be in school and get an education. Given the state of government run schools – what kind of an education are these children going to get really? Elite school education as you’ve mentioned time and again has become a sick joke and the less said of the average teachers the better – so what good would it do to send these children to the pathetic government run institutions, which hardly have regular teachers unless something is done to overhaul the system of education entirely…? But I’ll not travel down that path.

Shilpi said...

What you write in your penultimate and concluding paragraphs are what bothered me and from a rather early age, and bothers me most often . There is no excuse for societies to ignore the horrible aspect of poverty, and yet I have always wondered what difference a certain amount of material security made to the mindsets and behaviour of children and teens and grown-ups who had better opportunities to not be mentally, morally and physically dull, dim, crass and obscene, and had some opportunities for being conscious, aware, mindful and thoughtful because they were not constantly burdened by the thought of when and where their next bath or bed or breakfast were going to come from. Your post reminds me of rather unpleasant memories of growing up but I’ll save that for some other time and place, and yet I can honestly say I did far more chores and errands in and around and outside the house than did any of my contemporaries by the time I was 10 and later. I can see absolutely no reason for childhood being interminably extended with children not doing any errands or doing any work anywhere in or out of the house, and especially middle-class children. And in connection, I also think that some form of mandatory social service should be incorporated within the school curriculum so that middle class children are made to open their eyes and see how other less fortunate people live and survive. I also wonder how children can put up with being chaperoned and constantly and how they don’t feel disgusted with themselves at some level – but I guess both children and parents are content with the strange parasitic relationship and after awhile I think it probably just becomes the only known form of behaviour. I finally realized fully what you’d meant when you’d said in one post that most people don’t need any education beyond class 8 seeing the kind of ‘work’ they end up doing, and after attending college for three or four years.

I think that in regard to your questions towards the end it relates to the kind of parents who would like to interminably extend the period of childhood by controlling their children in some aspect or the other – whether financially, morally, mentally, emotionally or psychologically – and some children willing to remain ‘obedient and good children’ forever in some form or manner. As for parents being proud of their children for any of those things you mention – given the kind of parents I’ve seen most closely they would baulk at the last one with, ‘tore oto pakami kora ki dorkaar shob shomoy?’, and say something like ‘nijer chorkay tel de to’ for helping an accident victim and yet the most unsettling part is when they also claim to believe themselves to be honest, courageous, independent minded, reasonable, helpful and loving. The article excerpt by Paul Graham was amusing and interesting, and that particular line did strike a gong within and yet his seeming laughing nonchalance regarding bullies (playing a trick on others isn’t the same as getting one’s nose broken by a bully) is something that bothered me apart from a couple of other things. I can’t help it. Bullies are not merely crazy – they are sick, whether one talks of the ones roaming around now or the ones who were around centuries ago, and I’ll never see this otherwise. I’ll end this rather massive comment for now. How have your own views regarding child labour changed I wonder though…

Ria Pariksha said...

As the article suggests, a complete ban on child labour will leave many families with lesser disposable income. If the government does not find any means to provide food for these families it would be difficult for them to lead even a meagre hand to mouth existence.
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits children below 14 years from being employed in hazardous industries under inhuman conditions including unhealthy environment, confined spaces, underground, underwater etc. Rather than amending the Act to put a complete ban on child labour the government and NGOs should shoulder the responsibility to see to it that the original Act is not being breached. The working children add to the national income of the country which cannot be said about the vast majority of the school going population who pester their fathers at every step to spend money on them for some reason or the other.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave in his short story "Shram Ki Pratishtha" says that those performing physical labour are equally and sometimes more respectable that those exerting mental labour. In this case, the working children do have a reason to take pride in- having the ability to fend for themselves and increasing, rather than decreasing their family's income.
Now to talk about the middle class, parents definitely do not want their children to work at a chappal shop or a tea shop. Satyajit Ray's fictional character, young Fotik, was happy to work at a tea stall and earn his own living but it dismayed his father as he came to know about it. Parents want their children to use their acquired education for respectable jobs (though it may sound respectable in name only!).

Suvro Chatterjee said...

This is one of those posts which should have fetched a lot of thoughtful comments, but as is always the case when anything I write is found to be deeply disturbing, most readers prefer to stay quiet, and perhaps pretend to themselves that they never read it at all, because it upsets their silly worldviews so badly!

For many years now, my daughter, while having been given a comfortable and secure enough lifestyle, has been gently persuaded to attend not only to all kinds of household chores but cultivate real hobbies of her own (meaning doing things she likes, and not just because 'everybody' else is doing it, like watching cricket or going to parties), besides dealing with folks who come to see me or call (they often come in scores!)... and for years parents have been remarking about how mature and well poised and responsible she looks and sounds (on the phone, most people mistake her for her mother!). We often tell them that is not an accident, she has been brought up that way - and deliberately so, for her own long term benefit: one needs a lot of life-skills, soft skills, interpersonal skills or whatever you choose to call them to do really well not only in one's career but family and society, and school/college curricula neglect them too badly, so merely doing well in exams (which she does, too) is no guarantee that she will be able to look after herself well in future, as I can see from the badly messed up lives of so many ex-students, including a lot who were 'good at studies'... yet I can count on my fingers how few parents have been persuaded by our example to change the way they handle their children! What does this tell about the majority of our parents, who so loudly proclaim how much they 'love and care for' their offspring?