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The Unasked Questions on Child Labor

July 2007
The Unasked Questions on Child Labor

The girl holding our son couldn't have been more than 16 years old. Playing with him was a pleasant diversion for her, I could tell, whereas my son, clearly enjoying her company, became oblivious to our presence. So we adults in the room carried on with our business: chatting, laughing, eating, drinking. Initially, on this trip to India, I'd been taken aback to see the girl working at a family friend's house, where we'd dropped by for a short visit. As successful and fairly progressive urbanites, Ram (name changed) and his wife didn't seem like the sort of people who'd employ a minor in their household. But as a visiting NRI, I knew it'd be foolish of me to ask any questions that may be misunderstood or appear inappropriate and insensitive.

Later, though, the relative who'd accompanied us told me more about this girl. She belonged to a struggling farm worker's family in Ram's native village. While visiting his aged parents, Ram had been approached by the girl's father, who thought she'd be better off in the city—at least until they married her off. Given the man's precarious circumstances—he was in debt and had other children to take care of—the Rams overcame doubts and brought the girl to their well-appointed flat in the city. It was an admirable gesture, no doubt. During my childhood in India, I recall, not a few adults had that sense of social obligation towards the less fortunate in their native villages.

"You should have seen her," my relative said. "She was a scrawny girl. Now she's healthy and well-adjusted."

Yes, it was easy to believe that. Still, there were questions that remained unasked. Didn't the girl go to school? Or had the Rams found cheap domestic help? The arrangement was more complicated, I later realized, than these questions implied. She did household chores, it's true, but the Rams took good care of her and paid a decent salary, a portion of which went to her family in the village. That was not all. They'd enrolled her as a part-time student in a vernacular school that offered remedial education. But she hadn't liked it, according to what we heard, and didn't want to go. A learning disability was hinted at, but we weren't really sure what the problem was. In any case, not being her parents, the Rams now faced a dilemma. They were reluctant to send her back because she liked it better in the city; at the same time, they didn't want to break any laws.

Of course, the existence of child labor laws in India doesn't stop children from working or being forced to work. It often comes down to either working or going hungry. Yet it's also true that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. A child who doesn't get the chance to go to school is almost certainly being condemned to a lifetime of ceaseless toil. In this case, to be honest, there was no opportunism or exploitation. Though the Rams were benefiting, they genuinely wanted to help the girl and her family. But now, I think, they were having second thoughts because of the way it had worked out.

When I was growing up, it was quite common to see young teenagers employed by even educated people in middle-class households such as ours. Girls, especially, were placed in these jobs, I think, because working in a decent household was seen as easier—and safer—than, say, working in a factory. And if the family happened to be wealthy, the pay and perks were also better. Frequently, a household like my grandfather's was considered a good place to train girls before they were married off.

But the person I most clearly remember from my childhood visits to the coastal town where my grandfather lived was a boy, not a girl. He arrived by bus from his village one day, accompanied by an adult relative. They'd wrapped themselves in white cotton clothing to ward off the early morning chill. Ranga, who was perhaps 15 years old, started doing some chores around the house. The plan, I suppose, was for him to learn a trade or skill that he'd find useful in life. Ranga didn't last long, however. In the brief time he was with us, a good portion of it was spent playing with me. He was familiar with gilli-danda but not cricket, although he picked it up quickly. On those winter afternoons, we played both games in my grandfather's courtyard.

And then, as suddenly as he'd arrived, Ranga was gone.���

Without telling anybody, using the money he'd earned, Ranga got on a bus and went back to his village. For a day there was much concern in the household, but everyone was relieved when we got the news that he'd arrived safely in his village. Had he missed his family? Yes, most likely. But he'd also felt confined in the urbanized, densely populated neighborhood my grandfather lived in. He preferred the open spaces of his quieter village, which was surrounded by green paddy fields and close to a river. Or, at least, that's what we heard.

India's outright ban last year on child labor in households and hotels, among other places, applies only to those under 14. What about slightly older children? Don't they also deserve to go to school, have an easier life as children, and prepare for a better future? It'd be hard to dispute that, but is it a realistic goal in the foreseeable future? And some observers have even questioned the value of conventional education. In The Week, for example, the playwright Mahesh Dattani objects to what he sees as the social conditioning perpetuated by Indian schools, robbing underprivileged children of their dignity. To be sure, he writes, these children have been forced to work because of harsh circumstances; but labor is what gives them freedom, not to mention "succor and hope," within the confines of their world. Pointing out that the realities of work prepare one better for the rigors of life, Dattani adds that "school-going children can learn from the experiences of working children if the educational system allows or insists on a healthy non-hierarchical interaction." So Dattani doesn't really deny the importance of education; what he argues for is the right education for all children.

"Nationally," as Frontline magazine puts it in a cover story (‘Stolen Childhood'), "there is no question that the most basic public intervention to eliminate child labor has got to be the provision of free, compulsory and good-quality schooling for all children. This is the most essential plank of any effective strategy."

However, illiteracy and poverty are not the only reasons for the prevalence of child labor in India. Among other factors, there is also the question—or rather the absence—of social stigma. In fact, as the same Frontline article points out, four of the more prosperous states (three southern and one western) in India account for over 40 percent of the officially recorded child labor in the country. Progress, though, is being made, if slowly and painfully. Despite India's growing population, these four states have had declines in the numbers of child laborers, going by the 1991 and 2001 census figures. Some northern and eastern states, on the other hand, have seen an increase in the numbers of children who work for a living.

In all fairness to the Rams, they did try to send the girl to school. Should they be doing more? They'd given her a relatively better life, based on what we saw, and she seemed happy. But ultimately, no matter how kind they may be, it's a master-maid relationship. We didn't get a chance to visit the Rams gain. As far as I know, the girl is still with them.


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