Our child protection laws need to be implemented better, and we must focus on rehabilitating children rescued from sweatshops
When he is not selling tomatoes every evening at the local market, 15-year-old Shyam Sundaram says he likes to unwind within the corridors of Wadala’s monorail station. Seated cross-legged on the floor in a 10 x 10 space with four walls and an asbestos roof, one of many such rooms spread across the transit camp settlement opposite the station, Shyam explains, “Sunday is when I get to relax a bit because the market closes early.”
The youngest of a family of three (one brother and one sister), Shyam has been hawking vegetables since he was 12 years old. “I began selling spinach and used to earn Rs 30 a day. Now I earn Rs 100 selling tomatoes from a cart,” he says, adding that he hands over his money to his mother, who too works as a vegetable vendor at the wholesale market in Sanpada. “I make around Rs 3,000 a month. I don’t save anything. My mother buys me a shirt and chappals every few months.” He explains that he has no time for play, except on Sundays with his friends, who too sell vegetables beside him.
Shyam and his friends are among the children who are part of the rising child labour statistics in the country, Mumbai being no exception.
According to Census 2011, there are 55,171 working children in Mumbai in the 5-14 year age group. In 2001, the figure stood at 34,525. The 60 per cent hike in child labour in almost a decade is a worrying trend.
Another disturbing fact is that despite the implementation of the Right to Education Act in 2009, a third of working children are between the ages of 5 and 9. We also need to explore the key reasons for the 347 per cent increase in a decade (see chart) in the number of working girls in this age group. The increase in working boys comes at a close 203 per cent.
The rising percentage of working girls in the age group of 5-14 years in nearly a decade (126 per cent for girls as compared to 35 per cent for boys) too needs immediate attention.
It is hard to pinpoint child labour in a specific area. The entire metropolis seems to be buzzing with children of all ages selling flowers and toys at traffic signals, in local trains, marketplaces. Children are also found in small hotels, at roadside eateries, dhabas and restaurants, as well as in the garment and fashion industry.
A large number of children in these sectors are trafficked from other states. In the slums of Malwani, Dharavi, Govandi, Madanpura and Byculla, children continue to be employed in large numbers in zari work, button-making, fashion jewellery and packaging, putting in long hours of work. Although many are rescued, they end up in the same place within no time due to poor implementation of rehabilitation programmes.
It is common to see children carrying gunny bags on their shoulders while scavenging dustbins, garbage heaps and city dumps to collect waste. Children with physical disabilities including those suffering from terminal illnesses are easy targets for those running organised begging rackets in the city.
Children can also be found doing various odd jobs: in parking areas, working as petty hawkers, messenger boys, shoe-shiners, cleaners, helpers in shops and establishments, gas stations, garages, as labourers in construction sites, small factories and institutions. All these occupations eventually have a destructive effect on their behaviour pattern and social living.
Children in the red light areas of Kamathipura and Falkland Road are particularly vulnerable. Typically, they are abandoned on the streets in unsafe neighbourhoods littered with brothels, and both boys and girls engage in sexual activities for survival and psychological needs, peer pressure or at times material gains. Children of sex workers even end up sleeping under the cot while their mother is serving a client. They are constantly subjected to advances and are at times sexually exploited. Drug-peddlers and addicts are a common sight in and around these areas, and the daughters of commercial sex workers are perpetually at the risk of getting sold, forced or lured into prostitution due to their exposure to brothels and their owners. Many young girls are put up for sale or hire.
There are innumerable cases where children end up working at home: helping their parents cook, wash, clean or handle small shops. Girls in domestic labour are made to work for long hours with unregulated salaries. A majority of them may not believe this to be child labour, but it should be considered as such because it prevents the child from accessing education, impedes overall development and destroys his or her childhood.
Children from economically weak backgrounds at a very early age develop a responsibility to contribute to household survival and well-being. Ironically, we as a society have a huge tolerance to child labour and such contributions by children are viewed with respect and encouragement.
Some of these children are full-time workers, while others juggle school and working hours, not giving them enough time for recreation, play and overall development.
Rehabilitation of rescued children
India’s track record in implementing legislation leaves much to be desired.
A study commissioned by Child Rights and You (CRY) along with Committed Action for Relief and Education (CARE) aimed to bring to the forefront the situation of children post-rescue, in order to highlight various gaps in implementation and processes.
The study findings revealed that nearly all of the 85 children interviewed, continued to work in the same sector for the same owner. More than half the children belonged to the age group of 11 to 13 years. Hotels, leather factories and zari workshops were the main sectors where most of the children worked full time, leaving them no time for education or recreation.
A concrete educational plan for children rescued from labour should be in place in order to prevent them from re-entering work situations. It is hence important to bring in more clarity in roles, responsibilities and accountability amongst all stakeholders.
Rehabilitation of rescued children should be of utmost priority. Structures and mechanisms under existing child protection laws and schemes need to be activated. Both the rescued child as well as her or his family should be linked to various social security schemes under the district administration. The District Child Labour Welfare Fund should be strengthened in this regard.
But to fulfil this objective there should be convergence of intra and interstate/district agencies. There needs to be easy access to sponsorship and other rehabilitative efforts within the Integrated Child Protection Scheme framework too. Linking skill development programmes to the education department and revamping the National Policy for Child Labour will bring in the desired changes.
The education mix
There is clear evidence that due to a poor standard of education in municipal schools, children end up with very poor learning outcomes: higher rates of dropouts, lack of interest in pursuing higher education after elementary education, to just two. Child labour should be seen in the light of the non-availability of a quality education alternative for children.
Apart from huge gaps in infrastructure of municipal schools, mainly in Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, closure, mergers and adoption of schools by private sector entities (including non-profit organisations) is also a major cause of concern.
An analysis of the United District Information System for Education data from 2012-2015 shows a steady decline in enrolment of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe children in the upper primary schools of suburban Mumbai. This is an alarming statistic that needs to be taken into account by government as well as educationists.
The Centre’s attempt to amend the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act seems to emerge from the need to do away with the contradiction between the Fundamental Right to Education Act and the Child Labour Act than to eradicate child labour. In the proposed amendment, adolescents are allowed to work in a number of occupations and processes barring those mentioned in the schedule, which has been redrawn and restricted to three occupations and processes: mines, inflammable substances and explosives, and hazardous processes defined in the Factories Act.
This does not solve the problem in any way but instead tends to encourage child labour in other forms. The right to free and compulsory education should be extended to 18 years to put an end to child labour.
The government needs to strengthen multiple dimensions of prevention. Economies need to be strengthened so children are not compelled to work as an economic resource for the family nor they do not have to contribute to sustain the economy of the family.
The phenomenon of labour is closely associated with migration, as well as homeless families who are not tracked consistently; introducing a method of tracking children too could prove to be an important intervention.
Also, the government could facilitate the change in attitude of parents towards labour and education so they understand the value of education. Again, this means fortifying the framework under the integrated child protection scheme.
What you and I can do
While the government makes multiple efforts to prevent child labour, the role of society is even more important.
Individuals and families need to resolve that they will not use children as cheap labour. The privileged community too has to make equal efforts to realise this dream of eradicating child labour. Similarly each one of us should take the responsibility of child protection.
Simply put, if we see children working, we need to step out of our boundaries and make efforts, however small, to educate others and ensure children get their rights. After all, every small steps contributes to big change.
Further, the community has to serve as a vigilance mechanism. Communities in slums (which see the maximum child labour) in Mumbai, for instance, need to ensure that children do not drop out of school.
Protecting the rights of children forced into labour should not be ignored. Not only the government but educated citizens too need to do their bit when confronted with this horrific reality.
Or else, for Shyam and his friends — unlike their more privileged counterparts — Mumbai will never be the city of dreams.