Driving through a street in Chandigarh I was struck by a sight of few people, apparently women and children from two families, sitting at roadside. I parked my car and approached the two women and seven of children sitting beside their assets and dreams bundled in rags. A pot was boiling on a provisional hearth made of three stone pieces.

The families have migrated with the children from relatively poorer state of Uttar Pradesh expecting a promising life in the fast developing cities of Mohali and Chandigarh. Their men have gone in search of jobs in the city. I provided a packet of grocery and other food items to them who received it with disbelief.

I could not help worrying about the plight of the children. These children would end up as street venders or beggars or as child labourers shortly. In the past year I have been witnessing thousands of migrant workers arriving in these suburbs where there is a lot of demand for labour class. Several new tents and slums were mounting in front of my eyes in the last year.

Tender Hands Making India

Young street vendor with smoke, Varanasi Benares India

Young street vendor with smoke, Varanasi Benares India. Image courtesy: fxb.harvard.edu

India is estimated to have 17 million child labourers. Nearly 85 per cent of child labourers in India are hard to-reach, invisible and excluded, as they work largely in the unorganised sector, both rural and urban, within the family or in household-based units. The past Census reports shows that at least 21% of child labourers are engaged in pan, bidi & cigarettes industry, 17% in construction, 15% in domestic work and 11% in spinning & weaving. At least half a million children are forced to be sex workers every year.

While the mainstream society desists its responsibility of aggravating child labour, the number of children working in the numerous restaurants and shops is increasing. In Delhi, approximately 60,000 children work in dhabas, tea-stalls and restaurants on a daily wage of Rs. 8 or 10.

Many are not aware that many consumer goods they use have children in the production process. For instance, thousands of children work in the fireworks and match box factories of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu; in the slate pencil industry of Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh; in the slate industry of Markapur in Andhra Pradesh; in the diamond polishing units of Surat in Gujarat; in the lock industry of Aligarh, in the brassware industry of Moradabad, in the glass industry of Firozabad (all in Uttar Pradesh).

Who would not love to have a Kashmiri carpet spread in the drawing room of their house? The carpet weaving industry in Kashmir thrives on little girls who break their back making these beautiful rugs. In the embroi­dery industry of the same region children are required to maintain a fixed posture for long hours and strain their eyes on intricate designs often resulting in permanent damage to spine and eye. The yarn of the Banaras silk sari, the dream-drape of any upper middle class Indian women, is loomed by the tender fingers of children working in the silk industry of Varanasi.

The Undesired Labour

Child labourers are robbed of their childhood. At a tender age when they shall be developing their faculties they are forced to work tirelessly under risky situations. They do not have chances of proper schooling nor the opportunities for play and entertainment. They are exposed to extreme weather and work conditions. The industrial smoke and toxic materials are hazardous to their health. They are vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Their life is highly precarious and they are violated of basic rights.

Child labour is inextricably linked to bonded labour. Many children end up in bonded labour as early as they are ten years old. In Orissa, parents sell daughters of eight to ten years old to the creditor in order to clear debt. In other parts of the country parental bondage is carried over to male children for their deteriorating middle aged parents to free themselves.

Children are preferred in the industry because of their precision in work. Their tender fingers are highly skilful in bead making, diamond shining, weaving and embroidery. In mining operations boys carry coal to the surface because their height allows them to walk without bending in the tunnels. They are able to work long hours for a lower wages. Above all children do not claim their rights and are susceptible to suppression.

Public Policies and Involvement

No civilised society can push its children to work. While Indian law does not favour children working, the Government thinks that child labour cannot be completely eradicated. Therefore it pays more attention to improve the predicaments of juvenile work force. These include reducing children’s working hours, ensure basic wages and provide facilities for health and education. However, these regulations are flown in the air and falls on deaf ears.

Our society is not child-friendly as evident from its policies and approaches to children. The society in general does not appreciate and respect children. It hesitates to acknowledge children’s rights. The government should ensure safety and security of children at workplace. It has to ensure that every child in the country gets elementary education even if they work. Measures have to be taken to increase their social security with mandatory health insurance arranged by their employers. (This is not to approve child labour, but to advocate for protection from every risks and abuses.)

Various NGOs are working to alleviate the problem of child labour. Kailas Sathyarthi’s relentless work for liberating working children not only has brought him the Nobel Prize but also has helped resettling thousands of working children. His Bachpan Bachao Andolan and Global March Against Child Labour are providing valuable directions to the global community to abolish child labour.

A Church that Cares for Children

Church is very sensitive to the needs of the children especially who needs care and protection. A century ago, Pope Leo XIII warned: “in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed.” The burden of hard work would blight the blooming children, even as Leo XIII resembled them with “buds of spring” which a rough weather can destroy.

The Compendium Of The Social Doctrine (2004) presents Church’s unambiguous perspectives on Child labour. “Child labour, in its intolerable forms, constitutes a kind of violence that is less obvious than others but it is not for this reason any less terrible” (#296). Church considers violence against children as a moral issue than its political, economic and legal implications. The Church’s social doctrine condemns the increase in “the exploitation of children in the workplace in conditions of veritable slavery.” The Church’s social doctrine constantly points out the need to respect the dignity and rights of children (#244).

However, we witness a constant increase in the numbers of working children and a terrible decrease in their quality of life. Determined efforts are to be put up to save our children and protect them from abuse. Various institutions of the Church are doing great work in the care and protection of children through its home for street kids, skill development centres and social rehabilitation centres. The imitable example of Saletian approach to juvenile neglect has saved thousands of children from filth and hard labour.

Child Labour 2

A young girl vending flower at a road signal. Image courtesy: www.sichrem.wordpress.com

Creating an organised movement against the menace of child labour, the Church and its members shall pledge that they shall not engage child workers in their houses and institutions. They shall also decide not to buy stuff that has involved child labour.

Positively, church shall do everything possible to improve the situation of the child labourers primarily by liberating them from bonded labour as well as ensuring their education. The ground-breaking bill of Right to Education (RTE) has made elementary education free and mandatory to all children. The Christian educational institutions can open their doors to deprived children to provide them with basic education as many of them have already been doing.

Creating awareness against child labour is as important as improving their situation. Church can join hands with other NGOs for this purpose. Church shall lead society to constructive and continuous conversation with a view to put an end to child labour. Forming public opinion against child labour through various media channels would be an exceptional involvement.

It is the responsibility of a refined society to provide their children a safe and better world where the children hold a respectable space. It is reprehensible that India’s development agenda has hardly anything in stake for its children’s development. It is derisive that India’s development thrives on a workforce whose certain share is on the shoulders of tender children. Child labour is bane of a nation that aspires to be topper in the global development graph and it has to be banished.