Audit shock

18 May

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI IN THE FRONTLINE

A social audit on the working of the ban on child labour in the domestic and hospitality sectors reveals a sorry state of affairs.

LIKE any normal child, Illyas from Varanasi, a 13-year-old, wanted to go to a regular school and become an important man some day. But poverty forced him to start working at an eatery for Rs.200 a day so that he could feed his younger siblings. He, however, continues his studies as well and is in class V. But his naive question stupefies all who hear it: “Shouldn’t the government help children like us to go to a school without working?”

Sanjay from Kursela, Bihar, has not been so lucky. Almost the same age as Illyas, he had to give up studies after class IV, when his father took ill, to take care of his three younger siblings. He earns Rs.900 a month, gets free food and supports his two younger brothers’ education.

Fifteen-year-old Nagaraju from Alware village, Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh, works as a cleaner at a hotel for Rs.1,500 a month plus abuses and beatings. This poor boy supports the education of his elder sister, who has completed her intermediate and is planning to go for higher studies. His sister’s education, he hopes, will one day end his troubles.

Pooja, 13, from Lohanipur, Patna, cooks for a living and earns Rs.800 a month. Her three siblings work for food. She supports her mother, who turned mentally unstable after her husband abandoned her.

These heart-wrenching tales of real children were narrated at a public hearing on the working of the ban on child labour in the domestic sector and in the hospitality industry, which has been in force since October 2006. The public hearing, which was held in New Delhi on April 30, was the culmination of a nationwide social audit.

Looking at the sorry state of affairs in the country as far as child rights are concerned, one can see why there is an anguished cry for justice for children. The social audit, carried out by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) and the Campaign Against Child Trafficking (CACT) in association with over 30 non-governmental organisations working for child rights, covered 12 States – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. It brought out a mind-boggling, countrywide tale of apathy, insensitivity and indifference.

Quoting official sources such as the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, the social audit report puts the number of children employed in the domestic sector at 1.86 lakh and in the hospitality industry at 70, 934. In all, over 2.56 lakh children work in the domestic and hospitality sectors. Unofficial sources, however, put the figure at around 20 million.

Compared with the enormity of the problem, the response of the authorities to the social audit was poor, even hostile, the report says. This is evident from the figures given of the number of children rescued in various States since the ban came into effect. Andhra Pradesh, which was more forthcoming with information than other States, rescued five children in 2006, 97 in 2007, 242 in 2008 and 62 in 2009. Bihar, which gave the figures for 2008 and 2009 only, rescued 474 and 1,404 children respectively. Delhi, where roughly 50,000 child workers are engaged in these two sectors, four children were rescued in 2006, 91 in 2007, 33 in 2008, and no figures are available for 2009. In Jharkhand, only 12 children from domestic sector and 15 from the hotel industry have been rescued since 2006. Madhya Pradesh simply gave no information. It was discovered by those carrying out the audit that either the States did not have the information or they did not want to divulge it and, therefore, kept shunting the auditors from one department to another.

On the basis of the meagre information received from the States (only 10 out of 12 responded), the auditors figured out that out of a total of 5,096 children rescued since October 2006, only 3.04 per cent of the children were reported to be from the domestic sector and the rest were from dhabas and roadside eateries\hotels. The figures for the number of children rehabilitated are equally dismal. “This speaks volumes about the attention being paid to the problem by our law-enforcement agencies,” one of the auditors said.

The public hearing once again threw light on the stark realities of an apathetic society, a callous government machinery and toothless laws, which have resulted in the social malaise called child labour. This is rampant across the country, in homes and in innumerable eateries, dhabas and hotels, though such employment has been banned by law.

The jury at the public hearing comprised Syeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission; R.K. Raghavan, former Director, Central Bureau of Investigation; Vimala Ramachandran, educationist; Ashok Arora, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court; and Arvind Kejriwal, Right to Information (RTI) activist and Magsaysay Award winner. Its unanimous verdict on the functioning of the ban on child labour in the domestic and hospitality sectors: “A failure.”

The public hearing was attended by eminent citizens, senior members from the media, senior government officials and child rights activists; 68 children were present, and 20 of them deposed before the jury. The jury noted: “It was clear that many children were forced into employment because of extremely adverse economic conditions at home. Some were orphans and some had only a single parent. The majority wanted to pursue education but had no option but to work to earn and support the rest of the family.… What was galling was the physical treatment meted out to some of them in a domestic environment. Those who perpetrated violence on the child workers included a software engineer and a banker. This indicates the gravity of the problem. Even those who are educated and are well employed are insensitive to child rights and the latter’s need to be treated with kindness and extreme care.”

With regard to the poor implementation of child rights laws, the jury observed: “The enforcement of existing laws has been tardy. For example, there are about 50,000 child workers in Delhi; only 23 of them are known to have been rescued. The need of the hour is to sensitise the enforcement machinery in order to make sure that the existing laws and provisions are well implemented in letter and spirit. At present, there is little accountability for implementation. The Ministry of Labour should devise means for bringing in this accountability.”

Stating that the existing laws on child rights were ineffective even in the rare circumstances when they were implemented, the jury noted that these could be made stringent so that they acted as a deterrent. It recommended making offences under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, cognisable and emphasised the need to sensitise the community at large on issues relating to child rights.

“Aren’t we all guilty? When we haggle with the autorickshaw driver and pay him Rs.2 less, or when we pay our maid a few hundred rupees less, aren’t we forcing them to send their children out for work?” asked Kejriwal. According to him, we are all directly or indirectly responsible for the current sorry state of children in India, and unless the attitude of society changes, child labour will continue to be prevalent. Added to this is the obfuscation of laws, which makes even existing provisions almost ineffective. “The law should be made more effective, offences under child labour laws should be made non-bailable, and the law-enforcing agencies should be made more accountable for their implementation,” he said.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there is little clarity about its real nature. Should it be treated as a labour issue or as a child rights and protection issue? “Child labourers are children in need of care and protection… but the Labour Ministry continues to deal with the issue of child labour by way of regulating it in some sectors and limiting its role to the rescue of children from hazardous sectors only, whereas the need of the hour is to address the problem in a holistic manner as an issue of children’s right to protection,” said Rajmangal Prasad, national convener, CACT. Moreover, he said, recognising the criminality of the offence would also lead to a shift in the attitude of the authorities and civil society at large, and that would happen only by making it a cognisable offence.

Another aspect that needs to be taken care of is the rehabilitation of children who are taken off work. “Most of the children employed in the domestic and hospitality sectors are there because of adverse financial conditions at home, so rehabilitation should be a key component of any programme aimed at such children,” said Rajmangal Prasad. The report says that rehabilitation programmes for children rescued from work are extremely inadequate, resulting in children falling back into the same trap after being rescued. The audit report cites the annual report of the Ministry of Labour, which itself says that under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP), catering to children rescued from hazardous sectors, the 9,000 schools being run for them have an enrolment of only 0.45 million children, and only 0.48 million have been mainstreamed since the NCLP was initiated in 1998. This gives rise to the big question: “Where is all the money being put into such programmes going? Who are the children benefiting from such projects?” The social auditors of the CACL and the CACT got no answer from the authorities, nor do government reports say anything about it.

“Revamping the existing child labour elimination programmes and investing adequately in new and holistic and need-based interventions is the need of the hour,” the audit report says.

But, as Kejriwal puts it, are we not all, as members of a responsible civil society, responsible for the sorry state of many such children? Unless the attitude of society as well as the law-enforcing agencies changes, nothing will change for these Illyases, Sanjays, Nagarajus and Poojas.

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