news Wednesday, May 27, 2015 - 05:30

  Three children are waiting in the Concerned for Working Children’s (CWC) office, their eyes looking bright but their bodies seemingly fragile and tired. After all their daily schedule is chock-a-block - they go to school at six in the morning and then work at a construction site from five in the evening till nine at night. It is the common story of child labourers in India. But these children say nobody forces them to do so and that they do it because their families are poor and they need to support themselves. However there is one thing they wish they could do. “We would legalise child labour in non-hazardous places if we had the power to do so,” one of the children Arjun* tells The News Minute. That is where the CWC comes in. Kavita Ratna is the director of CWC, an organisation that takes a rather unique albeit controversial stand on child labour which can be summarised in this statement: “Not all work is bad and not all school is good,” she says. Here, it is believed that child workers need to be empowered as the approach to ban children from working is not realistic. By working, children from poor families are able to support themselves and can afford the cost of education on their own. Child labour has many root causes that mainly include poverty and migration and CWC believes in tacking these causes in order to eventually reduce the burden on children. “For us the alternative is the key. We try to provide the best possible option for the child. For example, if a child is working in a hotel, that is probably the best possible option available to him. Exploitative labour is totally unacceptable to us, there is good work and bad work, good work is something we value,” Ratna says. She also says that a large number of children in this country combine work and education. These children do not appear in the child labour statistics because they are going to school, but they are also a part of the raid and rescue operations because they’re working. “The problem is not going to be solved by forcefully rescuing them and putting them in observation homes. The parents who are generally migrants have to come and get their kids out on the condition that they will leave the city,” she says. CWC believes that to prevent child labour you need to solve the problems of large-scale joblessness in the villages, migration and land being sold in huge amounts to factories and companies which also leads to displacement of people. Ratna points to a case study by UNICEF and ILO in Bangladesh which was conducted in 2003 to find out exactly how the children rescued from working in a garment factory in 1993, were faring. The results were baffling. Turns out after the rescue mission was held, a majority of students dropped out of the schools that they were sent to. Around 6% said that they were forced into hazardous work, and 1% of the girls surveyed stated that they were aware of other young female workers that were forced into prostitution.     In another example in 1986, the fireworks capital of India Sivakasi was banned from having child workers. Ratna says that this did not stop children from working as she allegedly saw them working outside the factory in small huts. She explains that their need to work was not addressed and this has led them to work in places where they can’t be seen or protected. However, P. Manorama, former chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee argues that such an approach is not feasible. “It is very difficult to apply this in practice. I’ve been working in this field for more than fifteen years and something like this is difficult to implement. At least under a ban child labour is under control,” she tells TNM. But Ratna says she has a response for the critics. “You tell me, if a child is working tirelessly every day to support his or her education, will you put him in a remand home? Or will you give the child some respect and support him?” she says. While the debate over banning or empowering child labourers continues, there is no denying the direction that the CWC is firmly heading towards. Another person sitting at the CWC reception is a former child labourer, Ali, who waits to be interviewed for a job as an activist. He is a graduate of from Bangalore University and speaks about why he wants to empower children. “I come from a family where my elder brother left his school early to start working. I wanted to study but I had to support my education since sixth grade by working odd jobs,” he tells TNM. He finally goes in to be interviewed by the three child labourers sitting inside the office. A few minutes later Ali walks out and has a look of surprise. “These children are so smart and confident. They asked me so many questions. They asked me what children mean to me. I said that a child is the same as love,” he says.    *Names changed to protect identity.

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