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.
For example, in order to properly evaluate official statements of intent it is necessary to find out what happened to the many initiatives and schemes launched with much fanfare in the past. Whatever happened to the National Child Labour Policy framed in 1987 and the National Child Labour Projects set up under it? What impact has the well-funded International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, initiated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and introduced in India in the early 1990s, had on the situation?
What about former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's announcement on Independence Day in 1994 that child labour would be abolished in hazardous occupations by 2000 (the deadline was later shifted to 2005, which has also gone by)? Two million children were supposed to have been withdrawn from such work and put in special schools where they would be provided with education, vocational training, monthly stipends, nutrition and health-checks. What is the current status of the high-powered National Authority for the Elimination of Child Labour, set up the same year, which was supposed to serve as an umbrella organisation coordinating efforts towards the "progressive elimination" of child labour? When last heard of, it had not met for two years between 1997 and 1999.
What has been done (or not done) over the past five years under the Government of Karnataka's Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labour, launched in 2001? There is considerable room for investigative journalism in all these instances since the funds involved in the various child labour projects and programmes unveiled over the years are not inconsiderable.
In any case, only a systematic analysis of what went right or wrong with various governmental efforts over the years can provide a clear idea of what it would take to at least implement the new 'ban,' if not to eradicate child labour. The very fact that most state governments are still talking in the future tense about putting in place a plan to deal with children working as domestic help and in hotels, eateries, etc. - clearly having done nothing even over the past two months - suggests that the official attitude continues to be that "this, too, shall pass."
If government-run institutions are to be used to house, if not rehabilitate, rescued children, what condition are they in and how are the children already lodged there faring? What is the state of the government-run schools to which these children will reportedly be admitted, how effective and relevant is the education being imparted in them, and what steps (short of incarceration) will be taken to prevent drop-out?
Can a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and their establishments and programmes be expected to handle the influx of the large number of children likely to be freed if the law is properly implemented? According to press reports, official figures put the number of children employed as domestic labour at 185,000 and in dhabas and restaurants at 70,000 (a total of 2,55,000) while NGOs estimate that around 20 million children are employed in the two newly banned sectors.
Considering that NGOs are obviously seen even by the government as critical to the effort to combat child labour, media reports dealt sparingly with their assessment of the situation and the way forward. Some NGO representatives were quoted in reports, of course, but mainly in the print version of the ubiquitous sound-bytes that have, unfortunately, become an enduring legacy of 24-hour news television in this country. And several others, who may have put forward a different view, were not quoted at all.
Also conspicuous by their absence were follow-up reports looking into the current status of children rescued over the years from a variety of workplaces, including hotels in Bangalore. A journalist who tracked down children rescued from quarries near Delhi in the 1980s by visiting their homes in Bihar's villages had found that most of them were back at work in and around the capital. The case of the approximately 50,000 children suddenly thrown out of garment factories in Bangladesh in 1994 is well-known, with UNICEF and the ILO later finding many of them at work in even more hazardous occupations and exploitative conditions than before.
In 1992, after a fire in a Bangalore hotel claimed the lives of three child workers and exposed the deplorable conditions in the sector, some working children who travelled to villages in Karnataka and Tamilnadu to talk to former employees of the hotel (which had closed down after the fire), found that some of them had already returned to the city to work in other, similar establishments. The report of the children's team, presented to the state government at the time, included demands and recommendations meant to ameliorate the condition of hotel workers, including children (since child labour in hotels was not banned then). Was any action ever taken on that painstakingly compiled report?
Another weakness of the coverage, including comment, was its disregard of the fact that there are different schools of thought among individuals and groups actively working against child labour about the most effective way to pursue the goal of eradication. Apart from the fact that professionalism requires the media to present diverse (informed) points of view, it is surely not in the best interests of the child to ignore what is essentially a divergence in analysis and strategy -- rather than in objectives or even principles - within the ranks of people who are really on the same side as far as the end result is concerned: the safeguarding of children's rights and welfare.
It is nearly a decade since international organisations such as UNICEF recognised differences of opinion on how best to proceed in the struggle against child labour. Its 1997 report on The State of the World's Children, which focused on the subject, explicitly stated that "coherent programmes to combat hazardous and exploitative child labour will have to draw from the expertise and experience of both camps. Any comprehensive attack on hazardous child labour must advance on several fronts."
The UNICEF report also suggested that the struggle against child labour had to necessarily mobilise a wide range of protagonists: governments and local communities, NGOs and spiritual leaders, employers and trade unions and, most importantly, child labourers themselves and their families. Similarly, the Agenda for Action adopted at an International Conference on Child Labour, jointly organised by the Government of Norway, UNICEF and the ILO in Oslo the same year, clearly stated that preventive measures are the most cost-effective means of eliminating child labour. The document also stressed the role of social mobilisation in the movement against child labour.
Yet there has been little or no coverage in the media of efforts that involve working children, their families and communities, as well as Panchayat Raj institutions, in finding ways to reduce and eventually eradicate child labour, mainly by addressing the reasons why children enter the work force in the first place. Instead the focus has been almost exclusively on the ban, rescue and rehabilitation option.
The coverage also failed to connect the dots between the many political, economic, social and cultural factors that combine to create phenomena such as child labour and need to be taken into account in any serious effort to tackle the problem in a sustainable manner.
The P word
Take poverty, which is often discounted as a contributing factor, with various reasons being advanced to prove that it has little to do with the issue. Yet a number of micro studies (including four commissioned by the Government of Karnataka in 1995) as well as macro agreements, not to mention child workers' own testimonies, have established the unmistakable links. And poverty in this context clearly goes beyond low income to encompass different forms of deprivation which limit people's access to resources of various kinds and inhibit their ability to participate fully in economic, political, social and cultural life.
According to UNICEF's 2006 report on The State of the World's Children, "Poor children are more likely to be engaged in labour, which could mean missing out on an education and, as a result, on the opportunity to generate a decent income that would allow them to escape poverty in the future."
To go back to the two documents mentioned above, the Oslo document acknowledged that "Child labour is both a consequence and a cause of poverty." According to UNICEF's 1997 report, "Poverty begets child labour begets lack of education begets poverty." In other words, while poverty creates the conditions for child labour, child labour condemns most working children to an unschooled and unskilled life, which further ensnares them, as well as future generations, in continuing poverty and illiteracy.
Acknowledging the vicious circle formed by poverty, lack of education and child labour does not necessarily mean accepting the current reality as inevitable and permanent. As the 1997 UNICEF report pointed out, "Poverty is not an eternal verity," but is sustained or diminished by political and economic policies and opportunities. It is clear that the many complex factors that precipitate and perpetuate the unholy trinity of poverty, illiteracy and child labour - including caste, creed, gender and geographical location - must be acknowledged and understood if these inextricably linked problems are to be effectively and conclusively addressed.
For instance, the 1997 UNICEF report pointed out that "The parents of child labourers are often unemployed or underemployed, desperate for secure employment and income." Under the circumstances, surely the ongoing struggle for the rights of the vast majority (an estimated 92 per cent) of workers in the country, who belong to the unorganised sector of labour - where the laws of the land barely apply and where there is little or no security of employment or income - is an important part of the fight against child labour?
Similarly, the effort to establish a decent level of minimum wages for adult labour is surely an essential step towards the eradication of child labour. In the same way, the successful implementation of the landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed last year, is likely to be critical to the elimination of child labour. But these connections are rarely made in the media and, in fact, some individuals and organisations who proclaim their opposition to child labour are not so keen to secure the rights of adult workers.
Common sense also suggests that it is necessary to inquire into the links between child labour and the stories that do make the headlines every now and then, such as disasters (floods and droughts, earthquakes and cyclones, the tsunami) and conflicts (caste, communal, ethnic, territorial). Suicides by farmers - a persistent and perceptible trend that has sporadically caught media attention from at least the late 1990s onwards - continue to make news, but not the question of what happens to their children. And, of course, few seem concerned about the fate of children who belong to rural families displaced by dams and other 'infrastructural' projects, 'defence' establishments, and industrial, agricultural and real estate developments of various kinds - including fancy housing estates, corporate farms, information technology parks, special economic zones, and the like.
It could be that none of these children end up as child labourers. However, the chances are strong that many do. People working in the field report a perceptible increase in the numbers of street children - both girls and boys - in cities and towns in recent years. According to them, more and more children are being trafficked within and across borders both within the country and outside, and there are mounting numbers of children engaged in part or full-time labour. They find that these children typically belong to families who are deprived of livelihood security and even the most basic of social benefits, and are thereby forced to migrate to urban centres in the hope of finding some means of survival.
So, while it is good news that some children are currently being rescued from homes and hotels to be provided with welcome opportunities for education and recreation, it is clear that the bad news of children continuing to be exploited, ill-treated and deprived of their childhood will continue as long as the root causes of child labour are not highlighted and effectively addressed. The media could play a valuable role in the effort to eliminate child labour by keeping the spotlight on the problem and investigating the many reasons that have kept it from being solved, ranging from political unconcern and official apathy through social realities to economic policies that perpetuate, if not exacerbate, poverty and inequity.