Swami Agnivesh

The most reliable pointer to the character and culture of a society is the way it treats its children and not just the children of the rich but, children in general. The right to childhood is recognized globally as a sacred and inalienable right. In the literatures of the world, the child is celebrated as a symbol of the spontaneity, beauty and innocence that comprise the wellbeing of human life. Childhood is the morning of our humanity. A blighted beginning is a nightmare. We all want to begin well for ourselves. Yet we fail to respect this eagerness in others. This stares at our face like a cosmic question mark.

The unabated neglect or exploitation of millions of children in the age group of 6-14 is a blot on the fair image of this great country. It mocks at our spiritual heritage, tarnishes our cultural profile and imperils our economic dynamism. A country that allows its children to languish in the prison of under-development pawns its future and consigns itself to all-round poverty. It is high time that this chronic malady is handled with a fierce sense of urgency. I want to place on record my personal appreciation for a new initiative on the part of the Planning Commission, Government of India and thank those in authority on behalf of the millions of voiceless and exploited children in this country.

The statistics speak for themselves in exposing the abyss of this horrendous social injustice. More than 120 million children who should have been in schools, laying the foundation for their future and strengthening the future of their country are actually child labourers. About 65 million children are working 8-10 hours a day, substituting that many adults who are thus, out of employment. The 350 million workers in the unorganized sector live in conditions of deprivation and chronic economic uncertainty. Of these about 86% are from the SC/ST background. The rest are from the OBCs. They cover all religions. The availability of this large army of child workers plays a big role in depressing wage levels, with its spillover effect on labourers in general. This amounts to attractive financial advantage to the forces of exploitation that thrive on the easy availability of cheap labour.

This situation perpetuates poverty and forestalls progress. To Gandhiji, the progress of a nation is to be measured by the plight of the least of the last in that society. Such a vision presupposes a spiritual outlook. With the ascendancy of materialism, the society becomes incrementally callous towards the plight of the poor and hyper-sensitive to the whims of the rich and the elite. It is a tragic and lamentable fact that successive governments have abdicated their responsibility towards the children of the poor in this country. This cursed state must now end once and for all.

The scandal of child labour cannot be tackled unless a reasonable national minimum wage policy is evolved and implemented vigorously. Leaving the question of minimum wages wholly to the states has not worked so far. A fair minimum wage to be aimed at is that of the daily equivalent of a class 4 worker in the state government. This is only reasonable as the work done by those in the unorganized sector is far more demanding and strenuous than what, a peon or attendant in an office does. There is indeed hardly any comparison.

The second crucial issue is that of education. In the current system of education can only aggravate the handicap of the poor children. It plays a major role in widening the gulf between the rich and the poor, by disabling the latter from sharing the fruits of development. Increasingly, even the lower middle class parents are finding it difficult to meet the cost of what is considered good education. This coupled with the chronic and seasonal unemployment that plagues life especially in rural India makes the high school drop-out levels inevitable.

One way out is to motivate continued school attendance through “food for education” schemes. The logistics of the situation proves that while mid-day meals do help to bring down drop-out rates, it does not go far enough to make a radical difference. A school going child below the poverty line should be given a kilogram of rice and wheat each day. This investment in human resource development should be seen as the bare minimum.

Yet another major issue relevant to our concern is the evaluation of labour cost in a globalizing world. In the city of Delhi a daily wage earner carries home Rs. 93, while his counterpart in the US is paid US $ 48. (Approx. 2200). In some of the Indian states it is as low as Rs. 60 per day. And there are seasons in which a breadwinners in families may not get any employment whatsoever for weeks. In such a context, securing even a marginal relief through pushing one’s children into the child labour market is a great temptation.

It is necessary to create a cultural and spiritual environment in which childhood is not seen solely in terms of income generation. And that is possible only by lifting the affected people who are below the level of crass poverty and dehumanization. Unless life is valued and cherished children will not be valued and cherished either. Girl children for instance are despised for the economic disaster they are feared to bring about. It is this attitude that needs to be challenged at the outset. But that cannot be done as long as we ascribe different order of values to different class and castes of people.

The key issue

It does not help to see issues like child labour or bonded labour in isolation from the total economic system or vision from which they emerge. Time is come for us to realize that an exploitative mindset or cultural disposition underlies these depraved institutions. There are two models of economic enterprise that we may choose from. In the model that the developed societies of the world follow, the aim is to duly compensate the workers so that (a) an optimum quality of life ensured for all and (b) the buying capacity of the citizens is enhanced so that local markets are kept buoyant. The model that we follow is quite the opposite of this. We keep wage levels to abysmally low levels with a view mainly to making our products price-competitive in overseas markets. Embarrassingly, we even try to attract overseas investors on the lure of the ‘cheap labour’ that we can offer. We overlook in the process that this is the largest blot on the face of our country from the international perspective. We cannot keep our labour cheap forever without cheapening ourselves. This ‘cheap labour strategy’ besides everything excludes a sizeable section of our population from the domestic market. Today our market strategy stops with the middle class and does not come down to even the lower middle class, leave alone the working class. This is wholly a self-inflicted insult. It increases our dependence on external circumstances and markets. We make cheap goods available to the richer societies, robbing our workers of their livelihood. This is patent injustice and should not be countenanced any longer.

On the other hand if the workers could be ensured decent and reasonable wages, the domestic markets would be enlarged that much more reducing our desperation in finding a foothold in overseas markets.

While concepts like vision 2020 are theoretically fine, they could also be unhelpful unless we are careful. The problem in projecting our goals that far into the future is that, it takes away the edge from our desire to make a difference here and at that very moment. The duty today can be dodged by the glory of what is projected for tomorrow. I am not convinced that giving a fair deal to the children of this country should wait any longer.

Ultimately this is a matter of priorities. We are eager to put a man on the moon in a few years from now. We are not willing to wait till 2020. If building of a posh school where, the children of the elite study collapses and it is suggested that it could be restored in 2020, there would be widespread indignation. But when it comes to making their dues available to the poor, we are willing to be very patient and project our pious intentions so far into the comfort zone of a distant future. This is rather worrisome. I would urge the government to launch an all-out war on child labour. However, this by itself is not enough. The positive goal must be to create conditions favourable to the fullest growth and development of every child in this country so that our children do not have to be disabled for life by the circumstances of their birth.