The MEA's children

Published : Jan 24, 1998 00:00 IST

The Ministry of External Affairs has launched a curious attempt on the Internet to try and counter international campaigns against child labour.

CONFRONTED by international campaigns for sanctions against products of child labour - including carpets made in India - the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has embarked on a curious attempt to undo the damage.

India has more child labourers than any other country in the world, and the first - and essential - step towards abolishing it is to implement a policy of universal and compulsory school education. The MEA's web site, at childlabour.htm, however, says that since "joining the family trade at a very young age is tradition in India," child labour is not the evil it seems to be. Although in "most developed countries it is termed as child labour," efforts to eradicate it through trade sanctions are futile, it says. The MEA's web site, mercifully, "does not condone" industries that hire child workers, and tries to "ensure that they do not lead to the exploitation of child labour," but it sees no prospect of its rapid eradication through universal primary education. According to the MEA's web site, "The reality is that it is a socio-economic problem, and has to be dealt with in that manner."

These conclusions are untenable. In its efforts to rebut Western consumer campaigns that reject products made by child labourers, the MEA's web site has, in fact, exhibited just why an estimated 55 million children of school-going age are shackled to a workplace, when they should be learning in a classroom; the fact is that India's ruling class and elite have been consistently oblivious of the need for mass school education.

The web site does say that India is committed to the elimination of child labour, and that the state is constitutionally obliged to ensure that all children up to the age of 14 receive education. It goes on to state that the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act makes it a criminal offence to employ children below 14 years "in any occupation having the possibility of health hazard." In December 1996, the Supreme Court ordered that those who employed child labourers should pay damages into a fund that would be used for the children's education, and that the vacancies left behind by the children be filled by adults from their families. In August 1994, the Central Government announced a budget allocation of Rs. 850 crores to eliminate child labour in hazardous industries. In deference to the law and their democratic obligations, various State governments, including that of Jammu and Kashmir, where child labour is common, are in the process of introducing legal sanctions against public servants who employ child workers.

"MEET Jalil Ahmad Ansari," says the opening part of the web page. It tells the "true life success story" of the president of the All India Carpet Trade Fair Committee, who claims to have "left school at the age of 14 to work full-time with his father - an award-winning carpet weaver from Badhoi." "A fast and eager learner," the MEA's web site records, "Ansari soon excelled in carpet weaving." "Moving on to being an expert in designing, clipping, dyeing, washing and binding too. Soon, Ansari earned himself the post of a manager in a carpet factory. 1967 saw Ansari set up his own business. A meagre $4 unit which today is a thriving carpet export unit worth over $3.2 million. Ansari's is a success story of a five-generations-old family trade." "Woven," the page concludes, "with sheer grit and determination."

To illustrate the virtues of work, the MEA's web site has significantly chosen a figure who had had a primary education and joined the trade after attaining the age required by law to work in a hazardous industry to illustrate the virtues of work. Consider the Ministry's rationale. If starting early was the real reason why Ansari is worth several million dollars, he would have been richer still had his parents laid him down at the loom when he was two years old.

The reason why India's factory floors and sundry sweat-shops are not teeming with child millionaires has been examined in academic studies. Incomes of child workers are linked to their levels of education, not to the number of years they put in at work. The reality of most children in the carpet industry, as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report on The Progress of Indian States pointed out in 1995, is sordid. "Concentrated around Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh," the report stated, "the carpet business employs an estimated 300,000 children." According to the report, "Many of the children get 'bonded' early in life to repay a family debt, and work under appalling conditions."

The web page uses Jalil Ansari's atypical story as a peg to hang several questionable propositions on. The first and foremost is an assault on the well-documented fact that universal primary education is the only answer to child labour. The web page cites a report that appeared in The Asian Age newspaper dated May 25, 1997 to make its point. It tells the story of Anwar, who worked as part-time help in a factory at the age of seven. "The work required a lot of running around and fetching things for others," The Asian Age report stated, "(but) since children enjoy running around, his parents and his employers were saved the guilt of putting Anwar to work (sic)." Anwar's too would undoubtedly have been a success story had not, horror of horrors, "a team of social workers descended on Mirzapur." They enrolled Anwar in a school, but the project collapsed owing to misadministration. "Children working in factories, however hazardous," the writer said, "cannot be rescued unless their economic lot is improved."

The MEA's web site uses the report to press its central point. "Child labour," it argues, "is a poverty-driven phenomenon." And, "It is seen that the incidence of child labour is higher in States that have a larger population below the poverty line. Similarly, high incidence of child labour is accompanied by high dropout rates in schools. Child labour is essentially a function of socio-economic development of an area, and the approach of parents to their children."

THESE propositions do not stand scrutiny. As academic Myron Weiner has shown, rising national incomes in East Asia and elsewhere followed universal primary education; it did not happen the other way round. Child labourers tended to be employed because they are cheaper to employ and less resistant to exploitation than adults. Thus, each child job eradicated means a better-paid adult job created in its stead. UNICEF's 1995 report found that this operated even at a microlevel. For example, in Andhra Pradesh's Shankarapally mandal, almost a third of 6,000 children between the ages of 6 and 11 worked in the fields, tended cattle, or were employed to make flower garlands. After 1987, interventions led to most of these children returning to school. The impact of this was remarkable. UNICEF found that "In the flower growing area, the replacement of children by adult labour, mostly women, has resulted in a tripling of wages." It enabled families to acquire new assets like buffaloes and land, generated additional employment, and created more opportunities for more children to go to school.

How does the MEA's web site get around these facts? It claims that "UNICEF, in a report, categorically asserted that not all children who work in India are exploited. Not all the work they do is harmful to their development. Most of the time, it provides them with professional training for their adult life ahead. Invariably, they grow up to take over the business or trade they were brought up on - and that too, successfully."

"This is completely untrue and outrageous," UNICEF's Gillian Wilcox told Frontline. "None of our reports has ever said anything of the kind." In fact, The Progress of Indian States report said exactly the opposite: "The reality for the overwhelming majority of these working children is that they will spend their entire lives employed in unskilled occupations, working long hours, often in dangerous conditions, abused and sometimes in bondage for minimal or no pay."

The MEA's web site claims that the problem is very small and that it will disappear in the course of time. The web site asserts that "child labour constitutes only 3.6 per cent of the total labour force in India." "Of this, only 0.8 per cent of child labour work in factories," the MEA's web site continues, "and only 7.5 per cent of the labour force in the carpet industry is (sic) children." The National Council for Applied Economic Research is cited as saying that the number of child labourers (in 1994) "has gone down by one third over the past two years." The reality is the opposite. UNICEF found in 1995 that "economic exploitation of children in India is extensive and appears to have increased over recent years." "Most of the children," UNICEF reported, "work under stressful conditions in agriculture and in industries, often hazardous."

Is child labour, as the MEA's web site claims, "a tradition in India"? Perhaps - just as it was in an earlier age in many parts of the world. But if the MEA's intention is to protect Indian industry from consumer boycotts for employing children, it might do better to campaign for universal compulsory school education in India.

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