According to the 2011 Census, every 11th child in India is a child labourer. That’s a lot of children who are growing up in inhumane conditions. By working for 12-16 hours a day, not only are they being robbed of their childhood but they are also gearing up for an adult life full of medical issues, as most industries that employ child labourers are categorized as ‘hazardous’.
In south India, Tamil Nadu employs among the highest number of child labourers. When the Indo-US Child Labour Project was concluded in the years leading to Census 2011, Tamil Nadu was the only south Indian state to be counted into the project’s overall objective of addressing child labour in ‘ten hazardous sectors’.
Dr Krishnan of National Adivasi Solidarity Council states that there are 36 types of industries, including ‘hazardous’ industries, such as firecrackers, beedi and matchsticks, that employ children as cheap and compliant labourers in Tamil Nadu.
Though there has been significant decline of child labourers and an increase in policy initiatives towards this issue, the problem is far from eradicated. One wonders, why do we still face this issue? Policy paralysis? Definitely. Corruption and red-tape? Possibly.
The politics of child labour in Tamil Nadu is still stuck in a welfare approach through providing incentives for education, instead of striking at the root of the problem, which is the structural system of oppression, inevitably linked with class and caste dynamics.
The National Child Labour Project (NCLP) is a nationwide holistic approach that involves various departments and officers of the district, state and central government working towards a single objective – elimination of child labour. Children are systematically identified, removed from their work and integrated into mainstream education through bridge schools, receiving non-formal education and vocational training.
Enrolled children benefit through mid-day meal schemes, free uniforms, free bus passes and have access to healthcare facilities. Additionally, each child receives a stipend of Rs 150 per month as an incentive to continue staying in school.
Experts agree that NCLP is by far the best plan for eliminating child labour. In Tamil Nadu itself, NCLP functions through 17 districts.
For any policy to be effective, one has to consider the demand side’s thinking: Why industries create lucrative opportunities to obtain cheap labour and why families of child labourers embrace such opportunities with open arms.
For the problem of child labour, apart from poverty, the curse of their own nimble fingers is the other prominent reason making millions of children work in hazardous environments. Small fingers can deftly roll up a beedi or quickly place sticks in trays to turn into matchsticks. Put together, child labourers of such industries fuel India’s huge market of firecrackers and cheap beedi smoking that thrives on local and home-based businesses.
Sure, one can provide vocational training for adolescents and assist in finding income generation opportunities for families to address the root problem of poverty. The stipend of Rs 40 to Rs 60 per child per month is geared towards this intention, says Dr Krishnan. However, every child who is put up for work earns anywhere between Rs 40 to Rs 60 per day, depending upon the type of industry and the generosity of their agents. Families favour a daily income more than the monthly stipend, especially if that stipend is locked away in a bank account made for the child.
Furthermore, we are misguided to believe that spending Rs 4000 a month for an educational or vocational instructor for bridge schools under the NCLP is sustainable. Moreover, when children aren't working, they're considered an added expense for their families, one that many don't see as affordable.
Lacuna in definition
An essential amendment in The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Law, was the legislative approval of children being allowed to work in family-based enterprises, albeit after school hours. It is no surprise that beedis made in industrial setup account for just 10% of the total production. Brokers and middlemen outsource raw materials such as tendu leaves and tobacco to local families and obtain rolled beedis on a piece-rate system at the end of the day. When more hands translate to more income, education often takes a backseat.
Labour within the household affect girls further as culturally, training them in activities such as rolling beedis is believed to make their marriage prospects better since they are ‘skilled’ enough to support their future husbands and provide additional income. Overall, 80% of child labour in the state constitutes rural girls, according to Census 2011.
The Constitution of India prohibits the employment of ‘children’ who are below 14-years of age in factories, mines or hazardous employments. The National Policy for Children, 2013, says that any person below 18 years of age is considered as a ‘child’, a definition that is critical to remember in the context of child labour in India.
Most schemes and welfare benefits are focused on children between the ages of 5 to 14 years. What happens to children who are still under 18 years and above 14 years of age? A tough choice between education, which has long term benefits and immediate employment, which has short-term tangible benefits.
Consider the widely popular Sumangali scheme in Tamil Nadu, where the textile industry ‘employs’ young girls for three years on the promise of a lump sum payment at the end. Launched to provide assistance towards the marriage of girls, its unintended consequence has been the perpetuation of child labour. When capitalism meets the patriarchal burden of marrying young girls, it’s love child, ironically, was a system of accepted bonded labour for 14 to 18-year-old girls, who are often left out of most of the 5-14 years age group focused child welfare schemes.
Government bodies responsible for safeguarding the rights of children and implementing the numerous schemes and benefits have been notoriously under-staffed and in some cases, such as the Tamil Nadu State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, without constant leadership at its helm. India Committee of the Netherlands, a human rights organisation, and National Commission for Protection of Child Rights even had a dispute, with both sides claiming a different narrative on the presence and absence of child labour in Tamil Nadu’s granite industry. On a local level, a similar tale can be found in Dindigul district in the south of Tamil Nadu. The Human Development Report for 2017 released by the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission officially records that the district labour office reports a ‘zero status’ on child labour. The very next statement also officially records that there are reports of child labour in three blocks within Dindigul district itself.
The highlight in the recent history of Tamil Nadu’s fight against child labour came in July 2016, during a discussion towards The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. AIADMK Rajya Sabha MP A Navaneethakrishnan serenely declared that there is no child labour in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the intervention carried out by then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. His statement, as the House applauded his words, not only shows how the top brass is wilfully ignorant of the ground reality but also indicates a massive disservice to the people involved in eradicating the problem of child labour in Tamil Nadu — from the District Collectors who oversee education centres, to the NGOs who carry out rescue interventions, and the amazing women who prepare mid-day meals every single day.
An international reminder has gotten us talking again, but the real question is, why do we still need to do so? Policies do not automatically translate into results on the ground. As the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way. Sadly, it doesn’t say much about political will and the ownership that goes with it.
Sonam Mittal is a feminist activist working on gender-based issues, environment and human rights. She's a co-founder at The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman and MsChief at Azaadi, a non-profit working on prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Views are author’s own.