Thursday, December 04, 2014
Child Labour - The Need For Sifting...
An NGO rescuing children from a stone quarry. Children who have been born and brought up in that quarry and were never allowed to step out of it so they haven’t seen anything other than what was shown them by the owner.
When offered bananas to eat by the NGO worker, they think it a mis-shapen potato perhaps, but not onion for sure. Because all their lives they have been fed no fruit or vegetable except potatoes and onions. When assured that the bananas are sweet and asked to eat them, they bite it without peeling it for they have never eaten a banana before.
Having had the banana at last, they look at him, trust and anger at the same time, and ask, “Why didn’t you arrive before?”
A story that’s both shocking and touching.
And when people make their case by portraying pictures of injustice and cruelty as vividly as that - children working in stone quarries, in factories making fireworks, children doing rag-picking, one does not see a choice. But to agree. That there is only one correct view of the subject.
And further, to agree with any proposition that’s passed off as a solution.
In an atmosphere that is tense with simmering emotions, anger bursting through clenched jaws, tears and action on the brink of eruption, one is both afraid and embarrassed to take any other view on the subject than the popular view of the masses.
True. Child labour is heart rending.
These children need to be rescued. I am with you so far.
But after a certain point, I step aside and the rally moves on.
For, even in our enthusiasm for eradicating what seems like an evil beyond doubt, we must pause. Doubt. Sift through the cases. See the problem not just for what it is, but for what it means in the larger context. And then sally forth.
Take children working as domestic helps, children working in restaurants and bakeries, flower markets, weaving and carpet making? ‘Child Labour’?
No, they are a different story. I wouldn’t put them in the same basket as stone quarry and fireworks. Though you wouldn’t agree. Not yet.
It’s the season of campaigns, movements, rhetoric and revolution.
And as in all campaigns, there are only two colours. Black and white. They are no greys.
Based on the view they take of the subject, all people are classified into Hero or Villain. There is only one correct stand and the rest are wrong. There is no room for the question mark. If you are not with them, you are against them.
People are easily incited.
They often get carried away, nay, washed away in the wave of sympathy, all set to protect the ‘victim’, stones in hand to pelt at the enemy.
Be it feminism, be it caste, or be it religion, people have always taken their enthusiasm too far; so far that they have only swung from one unreasonable position to another.
One needs discrimination and some clarity of mind to take a balanced view of things and not go to what I call ‘the other extreme’.
One needs to pause.
This morning on a news channel, it was child labour.
The fundamental premise or hypothesis of the argument has been this.
1)Children doing any kind of work is wrong.
2)Children getting education by going to school is right.
Consider the first part of the premise.
Children doing any kind of work is wrong.
To be sure, work in stone quarries, work in fireworks making factories, rag picking, fertilizers and chemical industries are hazardous to health and not only children must be removed from these areas but men and women too must be replaced by machines or at least reduced to the minimum required for operating the machines.
But children in flower markets stringing flowers, children working in houses, cooking and cleaning are not doing burdensome work and surely not exposing themselves to health hazards. They haven’t been trafficked and they do what they do because of a dire economic necessity.
They live in hovels and shacks and most of them have a huge family to support.
Even if you give them free education and free meals, they need a job to feed, clothe and shelter younger siblings who cannot yet work.
They cannot afford 21 years of hibernation in schools.
When they are engaged in work like pottery, carpentry, cooking, cleaning, weaving, carpet making or embroidery, not only are they fulfilling an economic necessity but also they are making an honest living and importantly, they are acquiring a life skill.
It is good enough that they are not stealing or begging.
Sure, a child studying to become a doctor is better than a child learning to string flowers. Sure there was this Auto driver’s daughter who made it to the IIT and a watchman whose son got into IAS.
But we all know, don’t we, that these are exceptions, commendable though, and that most of them cannot afford to go to school and of those who do, most will not make it beyond the 5th or 6th?
It would be a Utopian thing to wish that all of them would make it to the Engineering or Medical schools.
By prohibiting them from working, in our enthusiasm to help them, we would only be taking away from them, the very little that they have.
We could instead, turn our attention to the betterment of the conditions in which they work – like bringing in laws that will ensure a safe, healthy work environment, sufficient wages, manageable working hours etc.
Now I come to the second part of the premise, that all children must be sent to school.
Central to the perception, not only of a cause like child labour but of many long standing institutions, practices, traditions and the life and people of our country, which have often been judged unfairly, both by the west and by ‘liberated’ Indians, must be the question “What is education?”
And on the answer depends the very understanding of the civilization of India.
If a farmer knows his seeds, his soil, his crops, his cattle, his manure, his harvest and the weather, he has the education necessary for his vocation and he IS educated though he may not know the alphabet.
If a weaver knows his loom, his weaves, his designs, his fabric, his colors, he IS educated.
If a potter knows his clay, his wheel, shaping and baking, he has the education necessary for his vocation.
If a cook knows well his sugar and salt and spices, has the wisdom not to use untimely crop in cooking, and gives cumin for stomach pain, plantain-stem for kidney stones and gooseberry for eyes, he is better than a doctor.
And thus, India was a land of the educated, everyone knowing what was necessary and sufficient for playing their role well in the society. Each one took pride in his education and his vocation.
Until the British declared that Indians were uneducated because they didn’t know the alphabet.
Well, if they had a narrow, immature, childish definition of education, it was their shame. But we accepted their definition and decided to be ashamed of ourselves.
The only uneducated people in any society are the beggars who have no skill for any vocation.
And of these, we have more today in post independence India than at any other time in the past.
An important question that should have been asked then but wasn’t, is this.
Why should everyone go to school and acquire one kind of education and become fit for one function or one role when the society has so many essential functions requiring people to perform in those roles?
This question remains relevant to this day and I find myself asking this when I need a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician for a minor fix in the house and there aren’t any to be found. There are so few of them left that they have to supply the needs of 10 areas instead of one and it turns out their children are all going to ‘schools’ to eventually become call centre or BPO employees. So once these vocations themselves become extinct, which I see happening very soon, what are we all going to do? When the farmers become extinct, what are we going to do?
Would I want my son to become a farmer?
The State will have to develop every industry, bring in the same sophistication, research, technical advance, propaganda, market, reward and recognition to all of them so the youth are able to perceive them all as having equal status, opportunity and significance.
That will be when all children will stop seeing engineering or medicine as the only option for them.
And then, if my son wishes to be a farmer, I wouldn’t mind.
As long as he likes it, sees meaning and purpose in it, is good at it and does not have to be deprived of the good that the rest of his peers in other vocations enjoy...
If we now revisit child labour, the problem would acquire a different outline, it’s boundaries would change and new possibilities present themselves in the solution area.
Yes. In most of the cases, child labour is a genuine concern.
But the alternative of putting them all in ‘schools’? Alright, but schools that will teach them skills they can put to immediate use to earn a living and to equip them for vocations that are fast disappearing for want of hands.
When I asked the owner of ‘Lucknow Chikan Work’, from where I have decided to buy a dress every month, ‘Where do you get these from? How long does it take to make one dress?’ he said, ‘Villages near Lucknow and elsewhere in UP; whole villages are doing nothing but this, we give them the designs, colors, everything, it takes one person 4-6 months to make one dress’.
I thought, ‘such a niche skill, thanks to these people for nurturing the art, keeping it alive, and providing livelihood to these villagers’.
But if you sent all their children to ‘school’, this beautiful art would die.
Someday... when this artistic vocation has been made equal to others, this art will be part of school syllabus, and our children will learn this art. A few of them will specialize in this, create new designs and colors and take it to faraway exhibitions.
Someday... a few children in those villages will become engineers or musicians.
But for now, the appropriate thing to do would be to compensate those people well, improve their living conditions, give them recognition, may be organize competitions to motivate them, take their work to more markets, so the industry will develop and flourish and not die.
The campaign that we need most today is a campaign to eliminate begging. It is known to all that begging is an organized crime. Healthy eyes are put out, knee caps broken for more profits. Babies are rented and fed alcohol so they go to sleep and cause no disturbance to their owners, only present a pitiable sight. It is the most wretched condition a human being can attain.
We need a campaign – not to put them all to ‘schools’, but to stop them from begging, to teach them some useful life skill and to engage them in some vocation, so they will not cut off their body parts for a living, but put them to the use for which God designed them.