The shocking decision of the Union Cabinet to legalise child work after school hours in family enterprises must compel us to turn an unflinching spotlight on one of our gravest, and collectively forgotten, cruelties: the theft of the childhood and hopes of Indian children whose only crime is to be born into poverty and disadvantaged castes and religions. Even today, the majority of children in the world who are still trapped in labour are born and raised in India.

Unconscionably, the law outlawed child work only in notified “hazardous” occupations, a list to which domestic help was added only a few years ago. Beyond 14 years, even this prohibition disappeared. Both the middle classes and governments did not find it problematic that children of disadvantage are being forced to squander their childhoods labouring on farms and in factories, in waste heaps and roadside eateries and in our homes, while we aspire for the best for our own children.

In the United States, a couple filed a suit against the Department of Labour for opposing their children working in the family business of a pizzeria. The parents’ argument was similar to that of the government here: the children are not being paid, they go to school, and they are learning to be a part of family enterprise. But as a legal expert argued in that case: parents aren’t alone in having a stake in children. Society does, too. The children of the poor indeed are also all our children.

The social fabric

The previous United Progressive Alliance government, responding to decades of child rights activism, belatedly proposed amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986. These sought to ban all child work until the age of 14 years. The amendments also proposed prohibiting children between the ages 14 and 18 from employment in hazardous employment. (It is scandalous that there is no legal bar until then to such employment.)

But sadly because of the stalling of Parliament in the twilight months of the last government, and low public priority to child issues, this amendment never came up for voting.

Recently, the Union cabinet approved one progressive aspect of those proposed amendments: the ban on employment of children between 14 and 18 years in hazardous employment. I would have liked to see a complete ban on all child work.

But while requiring every child below 14 years to study in regular school, the new amendment disgracefully seeks to legalise child labour in “non-hazardous” work after school hours or during vacations, helping the family in fields, forests and home-based work. “We don't want to redraw the social fabric of Indian society where children learn by participating in work with family elders,” a government official is quoted as saying. Another senior officer I spoke to asked, “What is wrong with this? Should not the son of a lohar or ironsmith, learn to be an ironsmith, or of a weaver to be a weaver?”

Casteist worldviews

My answer is: why indeed should the son of a blacksmith learn to be a blacksmith or a rag-picker’s daughter to pick waste? Why can’t he learn to be a poet and she a nuclear scientist, if these are where their dreams soar? And why can’t your son or my daughter learn to be an ironsmith or a weaver?

And secondly, when your child and mine come home from school, they rest, play, watch television, receive tuitions, do their homework, and in general enjoy the delights of carefree childhood. During their vacations, we plan for their travel, recreation, leisure reading, sports and hobbies, the best that money can buy. They never spend these post-school hours, weekends and holidays labouring in farms and shops, in embroidery or weaving, cleaning dishes and sweeping floors, moulding bricks, and sorting waste.

Why then are we so comfortable with such different childhoods for children born elsewhere? Why is it alright for children of the poor to labour after school and for our children to rest and play? And why must working-class children be trained specially in the trade of their parents and children born to the middle-classes exempted from all working class responsibilities and options?

This is nothing if not the idea of caste which remains deeply embedded in the worldviews of the upper-caste middle classes. The social commonsense persists that children of the poor and disadvantaged castes basically need to be trained not to work their minds but their hands, and upper-caste and upper class children for intellectual vocations. The alternate democratic idea that the potential for intellectual achievement is likely to be evenly distributed within all social, economic and religious groups has not permeated.

New economics

We must indeed argue for the dignity of labour. Let us conduct a social debate about including work with one’s hands as an intrinsic part of school education. This was an idea which Gandhi favoured in his nai taleem. But for this, first let children of the rich labour with their hands during or after school hours. Let them sweep floors and toilets, mould iron and bricks, weave cloth. I think this would be a magnificent education for them. Only then would I be content in endorsing these exertions for children of poor and low-caste parents.

The new economic growth model is pushing more and more work from factory floors to homes. In cramped, poorly lit and barely ventilated slum shanties, children bend over for hours moulding, stitching, embroidering, weaving and folding. Farm work entails continuous contact with toxic pesticides and fertilisers. All such work is hazardous. No labour is non-hazardous for children.

Making our children labour is a collective crime in which each one of us is culpable. The true reason for remaking child work lawful is the belief that in the global market, India benefits by lower-priced goods produced by children. Children are preferred to adult workers because they are submissive and low-paid, or because adults refuse work which is very unsafe and poorly paid. But do we really wish to build India’s growth on the thin shoulders of impoverished working children?