Focus on child rights

Deccan Herald, December 22, 1996

Crusader extraordinary, Swami Agnivesh has waged a three-decade campaign against bonded labour, child labour and untouchability. B S Arun of Sunday Spotlight spoke to Swami Agnivesh on the issue of child labour in the light of the recent Supreme Court order. Excerpts from the interview:

Face to face

SWAMI Agnivesh, Arya Samaj leader and President of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha which he himself formed in 1981, has been an uncompromising fighter against several evils like bonded-labour, child labour, sati and untouchability. He has also championed the cause of prohibition and has combined social activism with religion and politics in the last three decades of his public life.

The Swami's campaign against sati after the 1987 incident of the burning of a young bride at her husband's funeral pyre at Deorala in Rajasthan brought him in direct confrontation with the Shankaracharya of Puri. He has also risked expulsion from the Araya Samaj. Swami Agnivesh also led the famous march of dalits to the Nathdwara temple in protest against untouchability.

But the Swami, who has also been a lawyer, politician and a minister (in Haryana in the late eighties) in best known for his work among the bonded labourers. His Bandhua Mukti Morcha is in the forefront of efforts to eradicate the practice of bonded labour which still exists in many states. The organisation has helped in the release of thousands of people from exploitation and slavery for life and in their subsequent rehabilitation. The Swami has won a number of awards in his career of public service including the coveted International Freedom and Human Rights Award.

SS: Your Comment on the Supreme Court judgement.

SA: It is a landmark judgement. It will once again bring into sharp focus the plight of the 60 million child labourers working for eight to 16 hours a day. We hope against hope that the lethargic bureaucracy is sensitised by this ruling. It gives a wake up call to the country and hence we welcome it.

It is also unfortunate that Article 45 of our Constitution which says that every child be put in school is being criminally disregarded by every successive government.

The plea by politicians of all hues that we are a poor country and hence we cannot give education to all children or make it compulsory, ignores the fact that we have an equal number of unemployed adults in the country. If we send all the 60 million child labourers to school, you provide an equal number of adults with work. Unfortunately, the verdict has endorsed the serious lacuna that children can be allowed work in non-hazardous industries. Out of the 60 million, not even half a million children are working in hazardous industries.

SS: How do you see the implementation of the Judgement?

SA: This is where I have my reservations. There is no clear cut mention (in the judgement) of a monitoring agency for a thorough implementation. The Supreme Court would have done well by asking the government to appoint such an agency with committed social activists or retired judges in it. In the absence of such an agency, the whole thing falls back on an insensitive bureaucracy which has been the undoing of our democracy.

If a landmark judgement like this fails, it may well create a backlash and people will lose confidence in the law.

SS: Will the existing government network be able to handle the job?

SA: Once again, I would like to reiterate that the phenomenon of child labour cannot be tackled on the basis of the 1986 Act. The whole approach has to be shifted from child labour to the child's rights. The fundamental right of every child is the right to education. Schools for these children should be run by private organisations and the government should give 100 percent grant to them.

SS: How sincere do you think the government will be in honoring the SC verdict?

SA: Right now, I don't see much sincerity in the government. There is very little faith if the government is persuaded or goaded to do something. If only the SC had booked or pulled up some top people in the government and bureaucracy, we would have hoped to see some action. Moreover, the judgement has not said a word against the states. It is the states' responsibility to provide education to children as well as to prevent child labour.

SS: What steps do you think are necessary for effective implementation of the order?

SA: The United Front government and its Common minimum program have promised to eradicate child labour in hazardous industries. The government should implement education as a fundamental right and feel accountable for its implementation. It should allocate resources and open schools to provide quality education.