"This boy, claims to be 15 but looks much younger, supplies coffee to govt. offices." That was the headline of a front page report in The New Indian Express (NIE), Bangalore, on 8 August, in the week following the Government of India's announcement of the imminent prohibition of child labour in homes and the hospitality industry (ranging from tea-shops and dhabas to hotels, resorts and spas). The story, accompanied by a photograph, exposed the fact that children were employed in the canteens of the Government of Karnataka's M.S. Building which, ironically, houses the departments of Labour and Women & Child Welfare, as well as of the state legislators' hostel.
Two months later, on the eve of the ostensible ban, the City Express of NIE began its four-part series of brief reports on child labour by highlighting the fact that children continued to toil in cafeterias on the premises of the Civil Court and the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, and even on the construction site of Vikasa Soudha, the new secretariat building next to the state's "seat of power," the Vidhana Soudha.
Continuing in this vein, City Express frontpaged a similar story on 11 October, the day after the 'ban' came into force, headlined "Child labour thrives under the nose of officials." The report focused on a six-year-old girl performing tamasha in the compound of the Civil Court, next to a Deputy Commissioner's office which happened to be the venue of a press conference to discuss child labour.
Another report exposing the culpability of representatives of the state appeared on 8 October in Deccan Herald (DH): a ten-year-old girl had been rescued from the residence of a municipal corporator and former deputy mayor, where she had been working and allegedly ill-treated.
In a quick survey of the coverage accorded to child labour in the Bangalore editions of six English dailies (four of them national) over a two-week period -- the week following the announcement on 1 August and the week preceding the coming into force of the 'ban' on 10 October - DH emerged second only to The Asian Age (AA) in the minimal reportage it extended to the issue. Interestingly, while both papers barely responded to the official move on their news pages, they were among the first to publish editorials on the subject - AA first, on 5 August, and DH the day after The Hindu's edit, which appeared on 7 August.
In fact, all the papers got off to a slow start in the first week of August, with only NIE and Vijay Times (VT) featuring the government's announcement on the front page on 2 August. The Hindu highlighted the news on page 1 but carried the story on page 13, while The Times of India (TOI) placed its report on page 11. Neither DH nor AA reported the news. Child labour went off the press radar the next day but emerged in VT and TOI on 4 August, with the former devoting nearly two-thirds of page 4 to the issue and the latter presenting a mini debate on the subject on the edit page. In contrast, readers responded immediately to the initial report, with both The Hindu and NIE carrying several letters on the subject three days in a row.
By October, The Hindu had geared up with a special series on child labour, with reports from different parts of Karnataka, which began on 4 October. TOI pitched in on 7 October with a report at the top of the front page revealing that the state government was far from ready to implement the 'ban,' and a feature comprising facts and stories that took up nearly two-thirds of page 2. NIE also began its mini series in City Express on the 7th. It was only on the day before D-Day that VT took up the refrain with a story headlined "Give them back their childhood." And the very first report on the subject in AA also appeared on 9 October, with the impending 'ban' even announced in brief on page 1. The only story relating to child labour in DH during this period was the rescue report mentioned earlier.
On 10 October, when the limited ban was to come into effect, most daily newspapers in Bangalore made much of the fact that the long anticipated day had dawned. The Hindu placed the concluding report in its week-long daily series on the front page under the headline, "Child labour: grand plans, little action." It also had an edit page article calling for a ban on all forms of child labour and a report from Delhi on the Prime Minister's appeal to the nation for cooperation in ensuring that the law was implemented. While NIE also reported the PM's appeal in a round-up report from Delhi, its City Express supplement carried the fourth of its series of short reports on the subject. VT devoted most of page 2 to coverage of different aspects of the subject and TOI had an informative boxed item on page 5. Even DH had a report datelined Delhi, which included the PM's appeal.
And, of course, on the day after the 'ban' became reality almost all the papers had reports on child workers being rescued from houses and hotels by the police, along with non-governmental organizations - most of the raids apparently prompted by calls to the child helpline from alert and well-meaning citizens. However, TOI chose to publish a report at the top of the front page under the slug 'Times Reality Check,' headlined "Child labour ban? What's that? Life goes on as usual for these little hands."
Beyond the headlines
Press coverage of child labour during this period was not very different from the pattern established over the years and had much in common with the way the media tend to handle other such issues. While several newspapers gave it due attention, with some taking more trouble than others to highlight the problem, the coverage - taken as a whole - also revealed some of the pitfalls of journalism today: inaccuracy, superficiality, lack of originality and initiative, absence of background and context, little sense of history and even less awareness of the connection between apparently disparate events and processes which cannot but impact each other.
For example, even though some writers did try to clarify the nature and limits of the legislative development, imprecise references abounded. Even an editorial in DH on 12 October included the erroneous statement that "Child labour was first banned in 1986" Apart from the fact that the 1986 legislation only prohibited the employment of children under 14 in certain 'hazardous' occupations, a number of labour laws that predated it had earlier proscribed the employment of children (of varying ages) in various areas of work.
The fact that several news reports focused on children working in occupations that have not yet been officially listed as hazardous under the law may have also contributed to public confusion about what is, at present, legal and illegal. In addition, the unquestioning reproduction of inaccurate statements about the legislation and the failure to independently assess existing legal provisions amounted to misinformation.
For instance, the fact that the 1986 Act - with all its faults - did from its inception empower the government to add to the schedules of banned occupations and processes was rarely mentioned even as several interviewees were quoted deploring the limited number of occupations currently deemed hazardous under it. Nor was any attempt made to track the many official sins of omission and commission that prevented the list from growing as it should have over the past 20 years, let alone to get politicians and/or bureaucrats to commit themselves, at the very least, to expanding the list at a faster pace from now on.
If an effort had been made to trace the history of the Act, the telling fact that it had actually remained a dead letter long after it was passed would have been revealed. The Karnataka government, for example, notified the law (thereby bringing it to life) only nine years later, in 1995. Similarly, such a review would have exposed the fact that little effort has been made over the past two decades to plug the many known loopholes in the law that make it difficult to implement even if there is any political will to do so. Such background is clearly necessary to evaluate and, if necessary, challenge the statements and claims of both the government and civil society.
Use of data
Statistics represented another area of darkness. Estimates of the prevalence of child labour in India are highly divergent, with major differences not only between official and unofficial figures but also within the latter (largely because of variations in methodology). Even the census authorities do not seem to have provided so far a clear picture of the number of children under 14 reported working during the 2001 enumeration.
None of the papers attempted to pull all the estimates together and evaluate them in order to give readers a realistic sense of the magnitude of the problem, the many gaps in information that need to be plugged for any practical plan to be drawn up and put into effect, and so on. Instead different data were used, on an apparently arbitrary basis, often without any indication that other estimates exist.
Here, too, representatives of the state were allowed to get away with stating that they had no idea about the numbers involved and using that as an excuse for their lack of preparedness. The question that needed to be asked of them is: what have they been doing since 1996, when the Supreme Court of India ordered state-wise surveys to determine the number of child workers? Even officials admitted at the time that the hurriedly and haphazardly done surveys then carried out to comply with the court order were exercises in futility. But what, other than indifference and negligence, prevented state governments from later conducting more systematic and thorough exercises - even over the past two months? Why did the union government not insist on a concerted attempt to collect accurate (to the extent possible) data on child labour during the decadal national census in 2001?
In Karnataka, a census of school-age children conducted by the education department in 2002 revealed that there were 6.66 lakh out-of-school children in the state. Since the results of similar initiatives reportedly undertaken last year and earlier this year do not appear to be readily accessible to the public, it would have been useful if the press had dug up that information (if any) and asked the government what it had done with the data on children who were not in school and could, therefore, be presumed to be working.
The fact is that few of the reports that appeared in the press in the two-week survey period told readers anything they did not already know: that child labour is rampant in diverse sectors in the city, the state and the nation. There is, of course, some value to stating the obvious again and again, especially since child labour remains a grim reality that needs to be seriously and urgently tackled at least now. However, there is so much else that needs to be brought to public attention and placed before officialdom for explanation and action.