As old grandmother’s sayings go this one is my favourite. “Work while you work, play while you play, is a very good rule as many can say.” It is a maxim I am reminded about when I see children wiping car windshields on street corners, or carrying loads too heavy for them. A wave of helplessness is all I can feel.
Seventy years into being a free nation we cannot ensure the right to protection, safety, and play for every child in this country. It is one thing if we cannot do it. It is a totally different thing if we will not. It is even worse if we believe we are, when we are actually doing the opposite. Recently the child labour law in India was amended. A careful reading of the amendment reveals that the occupations that are listed as hazardous for children and adolescents to work have been reduced to just a few leading examples such as mining and explosives. This leaves out a large part of domestic and family businesses employing children. It legitimises the work of children after school hours and during vacations in family work. This does not rule out children helping their parents on construction sites or making bidis. They help their parents earn a living while we nag our children to get off the iPad and play in the fresh air. Many of those who work after school eventually drop out of school as the demands of work grow harder and leave them with less stamina to cope with studies. Enrolment in secondary schools is still an area of concern in India as working adolescents are dropping out of school to help their parents make ends meet.
This is probably what still allows shady placement agencies to recruit under-age workers and falsify age records which is what is said to have happened in the case of a 12-year old domestic help in Bengaluru. The Delhi-based agency claimed she was 18 and her recent death has brought the issue of child labour in invisible forms front and centre again. The couple employing the child in this case, paid her salary directly to the agency and say they thought she was of legal age because that is what the agency told them.
It is said that ignorance of the law is not a crime but it also begs the question at what point does ignorance stop being a defence? Surrounded as we are with 24-hour news channels, radio and social media, we cannot be so completely self-absorbed that we do not give a thought to what could be a potentially dangerous situation. Are we so focused on meeting our needs that we do not take a beat to make sure we know everything about a person living with us 24 by 7?
10.2 million children work for a living in India. We have all come across them. The ones we see are selling vegetables in the market and plastic flags at traffic signals on Independence day. What about the ones we do not see? What about the ones we look through? What about little girls and boys in drought ridden villages whose parents have no choice but to send them to work in sub-human conditions? What about the maid who sends her daughter to work on the days she is not well just because her employer cannot do without a maid for a single day?
Jerome Michael a Professor teaching advocacy in Columbia university taught his students that “If you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts. If you have the law on your side, hammer the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, hammer the table.” We have the facts on our side and we are hammering the table…waiting for the law to come down on our side.