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?