When will it be the children’s day?

5 Nov, 2007, 0000 hrs IST,Tina Edwin, TNN

For the rupee-hit textile exporters, the expose in the western media about use of child labour could not have come at a worse time. Cancellation of orders by retailers overseas and closure of units will primarily hurt the poor families who were forced to send their children to work in conditions which most adults would abhor. The truth is that child labour cannot be wished away in India and other developing nations with vast population living below the poverty line.

In India, the situation may only get worse, rather than improve, as people get displaced from their natural habitation to make way for special economic zones, power plants and factories. The activism of the non-governmental organisation whereby children are ‘rescued’ and sent home does nothing to improve their lot. In doing so, NGOs may be pushing the children live a more difficult life, perhaps on the streets, begging for a living or taking to petty crimes. In many other cases, the parents may once again hand over the child to another contractor to work in another factory in a different part of the country.

Social activists based overseas and in India need to take cognizance of realities that drive people to send their children out to work. And accordingly, they need to realign their activism to ensure that children get a better deal at workplace – shorter hours of work, better and timely wages, decent boarding and nutritious food. That apart, it should be ensured that children are able to continue with their education at least till the age of 14, like all others, along with work. But that is not to say that child labour is acceptable. In an ideal world, every child should go through school, without worrying whether they would get their next meal.

But we don’t live in an ideal world and hunger is a reality for more than a third of the country’s population. Child labour cannot be scrapped by legislation or NGO activism. Poverty needs to be tackled with responsibility and accountability by the political and administrative establishment if child labour has to be abolished. That would require, among other things, more honest and efficient implementation of the poverty reduction and employment generation programmes funded by the central and state governments.

As it stands now, a sizeable proportion of the funds allocated for these programmes are spent on establishment cost and salaries of those put in charge of the project. More often than not, a significant portion is siphoned away by the contractors given the charge of the project. Thus, a very small portion actually reach the beneficiaries.

Again, poverty alleviation programmes are meant to be short term and thus have limited impact. A longer-term solution to reducing poverty requires expansion of economic activity, particularly in the rural areas, whereby jobs are initially created for unskilled work. Alongside, it is necessary to create opportunities for workers to acquire some skills that will enable them to take up better quality work and earn higher wages. Improved earnings can act to encourage people to send their children to school rather than work. And for that, it is important to ensure schools function with teachers who take their responsibility to educate the young seriously.

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