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CYNICAL LITTLE FACES
- How can we not recognize that all child labour is hazardous to children'

There were several children onstage, all of them girls. In fact, on that sunny sweaty day in Mysore, I was one of the few adults in the open-air auditorium. It was the sort of crowd that should have meant cheerful noise — talk, song, laughter. There was a lot of talk; but not quite what any of us wanted to hear from the mouths of children. The girl at the microphone onstage must have been about eleven. She had a bony, sensitive face, but a surprisingly firm voice. She was dressed like a miniature adult. When she spoke, she sounded like a woman in a child’s body.

Only the bright cap she wore, like the other children onstage and in the audience, made it official that she was a child. The cap said “CACL Public Hearing”. CACL stands for Campaign against Child Labour, an effort that continues its uphill task year after year. Last year, on March 8, International Women’s Day, I was part of the CACL “jury” that met in Mysore to hear the testimonies of girlchild labourers.

The girl at the microphone, Nirmala, belongs to a scheduled tribe. She lives in a rice mill in Thiruvalluvar district in Tamil Nadu, working — or slaving — to pay back the advances her parents have taken from the contractors who provide rice-mill owners with cheap labour. When she was asked about her family, she stared at the floor for a moment. Then she looked us in the face and said in her ringing voice: “If they paid my parents properly, I wouldn’t have to work like this.” Then it was Chitra’s turn to speak. Chitra, all of ten years and part of the labour force for the money-spinning export market of prawns and cashews. Chitra shells cashew nuts all day — a smelly, sticky business. The best of the nuts are exported. But what Chitra remembers of her work is one detail: once, when she was hungry, she ate one of the nuts she had shelled. She was caught and her disgrace paraded before the hundred other children employed in the workshed. The little girl must already have a hundred other bad memories; but this is what seemed to rankle the most.

The third child onstage, a tiny bewildered-looking girl, works at making flutes. Has she ever played one' Would she like to learn' She looked as if a special punishment had been suggested for her. Flutes mean work, her face seemed to say. What does she have to do with its music' Then it was fourteen-year-old Savitri’s turn to speak. Her face was stony as she described her work. In our shining India, roads and highways have been developing, just as the government advertisement pictures it. The advertisement obviously leaves Savitri out. She is one of the Nepali girls employed in a roadside dhaba in Gazipur. They live in one room and work all hours; truckers prefer the dhabas that have more girls. “The truckers blow smoke into our faces,” Savitri whispered into the microphone. No one in the jury had the heart to probe further.

The jury members met later in the day after we had heard more stories than we could bear. It was difficult to move from the specific stories of the children — the innocent or hurt or cynical little faces and words — to the abstract realm of resolutions. Child labour, we had to first remind ourselves, was not an evil practice some particularly villainous contractors and employers had dreamt up. It performs an economic function; it is part of our economic system, in as many as fifty key sectors from agriculture and construction to beedis, fireworks, gem-cutting, plantations and quarries. Child labour is cheaper, more pliant. It is not unusual for families to be dependent on their children for survival. In such a context, what “judgment” could we come up with'

With the children’s lives fresh in our minds, the said and the unsaid prodding us, the jury members came to a couple of basic but big conclusions. All child workers are vulnerable, but a girl-child has an inherent disadvantage. Girls are allotted the more menial, routine and monotonous work. They are usually made to work in places and situation where their mobility is restricted. Home-based employment, beneath its veneer of safety, means vulnerability to conditions of bondage and the possibility of abuse.

The stories of the many girl-children who deposed before us made their susceptibility to sexual exploitation evident. Savitri was in our minds as we took up the employment of female child labour in dhabhas as waitresses. And whether working as dhaba waitress or beedi-roller or lace-maker, most of the girls are not strangers to deprivation. They belong to marginalized families, scheduled castes or tribes, illiterate families, desperate families.

Apart from being exploited by their employers, we had to conclude that girl-child labourers are also exploited at home. It’s not that children should not help with household chores; but for many of the girls who deposed that day, day-to-day life was a continuous round of cooking, washing, cleaning, and taking care of siblings before going to work and on their return. This day-long bearing of more than one burden effectively takes care of at least two fundamentals of childhood, rest and play.

The 93rd amendment to the Constitution makes some attempts to address the problem of child labour. But it penalizes parents for not sending their children to school, as if parents want their children to be enslaved. It also allows the employment of children in “non-hazardous industries”. How can we not recognize that all child labour is hazardous to children' That it makes them vulnerable to economic and physical exploitation, to poor health, and to a poor future'

Adults need more employment opportunities, not children. The girls we heard did not find it difficult to tell us what they need. One common thread ran through all their depositions: their yearning to learn. They spoke of school as if it was some forbidden paradise. So we had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the Child Labour Act must resort to the preventive strategy of ensuring a single, totally state-funded system of education. The penalties for employing children — which clearly needs to be made more stringent — has to also include a penalty for keeping children away from school. Education cannot be made the total responsibility of parents; it is the state that had to provide the infrastructure, not just the legislation, to support education for all children.

One more year has passed, and International Women’s Day was celebrated again this month. It is doubtful that anything has changed for the Chitras and Nirmalas and Savitris of India, despite legal promises, despite the untiring efforts of activists. One of the few hopeful memories I have of that day in Mysore is of a little girl saying — her brave voice and words drowning out the fact of wishful thinking — that she would like to be a policeman. Why' So she can arrest all those who employ children. Then, if things still don’t change, she plans on arresting the prime minister.

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