Childhood is the most wonderful phase of one's life. You are the centre of attraction at your home and wherever you go, people can't stop playing with you, your wishes are their commands and all your tantrums are fulfilled in a jiffy. But unfortunately, this isn't true for all children.
For a large proportion of children in India, childhood is a time to forget. They are treated as labourers and their day depends upon the whims and fancies of their employers. And, for all the hard work that they put in, they are paid peanuts. Welcome to the dark world of child labour.
Amidst the fast upcoming high-rise residential and office apartments in India, are a number of small shops that make a handful of profits despite tough competition from glitzy shopping malls. One common feature of all such shops is a 'Chhotu'. Usually a boy between 6 to 14 years, Chhotu is an indispensable feature of almost all Indian shops, ranging from small dhabas and ration shops to auto-repair workshops and medical stores. The sight of such Chhotus have become so common that we fail to acknowledge the fact that he should have been in a school, shaping a bright future for himself rather than washing utensils and serving tea at the commands of a grumpy employer.
Disguised as "financial help to the poor family", child labour is, in fact, a rampant form of slavery that can be found in many developing nations. According to the 2001 census, India is home to over 1.26 crore working children who are in the age group of 5 to 14 years. Just to put this into perspective, this number is higher than the entire population of Belgium! Data from the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organization) reveals that in 2004, there were 90.75 lakh working children in India.
In 1992, the International Labour Organization came out with the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) that aimed to completely eradicate this across the world. The largest programme of its kind, the IPEC has been instrumental in cutting down child labour in many nations by forming partnerships with a number of NGOs, universities and other influential groups. It was the ILO which, in 2002, called for marking June 12 as the World Day against Child Labour.
In 1991, a World Bank report gave India the dubious distinction of being home to the highest number of child labourer population in the world - 44 million! According to the report, one of the major reasons behind this shame was that a large portion of India's juvenile population did not go to school. Extremely high population, where even a child was seen as a potential earning member of the family, was another significant reason. There are enough recorded instances to believe that child labour is the first step towards greater evils such as human trafficking and physical and mental abuse inflicted upon children.
Last month, the government tweaked the country's child labour laws and allowed children below 14 to work in family businesses and the entertainment industry, sans circuses. While education activists criticized this move and termed it contrary to the provisions of Right to Education Act, the government justified it as "a balance between the need for education for a child and reality of the socio-economic condition and social fabric in the country".
The government added that this provision would only be valid if it doesn't interfere with the child's school hours. The amendment also introduced a new definition of "adolescents" - children between 14 and 18 years - and barred them from working in any hazardous industry. It would be immature to arrive at any conclusion on the impact of these changes as of now. But such age regulations have been in place in the country for quite a while now but have failed to reduce the number of child labourers. The population of child labourers is only getting stronger with each passing year.
Interestingly, it was in 2006 that the government banned child labour at places such as dhabas, hotels and other recreational places. But did you see any change in the number of child labourers around you since then? Probably not!
Our knee-jerk reaction to all the problems is to blame the government for them. But this, perhaps, is one of the few instances where common people need to share as much blame as the government, if not more. An extremely minimal number of households in the country have never employed a child in any form. Even lesser would be the number of citizens who have raised their voice against child labour. While "feeling bad" for those unfortunate children seems like a good deed, it won't improve their situation one bit.
In fact, the next time you feel like going back to your childhood days, spare a thought for those helpless kids who will never see their childhood even once. On this World Day against Child Labour, let us remind ourselves: "Children are meant to learn, and not earn."
(Munish Kumar Raizada is a Chicago-based neonatalogist and columnist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter@drMunishRaizada)