My column in the Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age
If a group of legislators in Nevada, United States, have their way, there will soon be a law banning candles in public places (along with air fresheners) in that state, because, er, the fragrances can annoy some. Fortunately, New Delhi is not Nevada, but candlelight rallies, even of the unscented variety, seem to irk a lot of people, especially if those holding the candles are part of the urban middle class, and some of them are young and well-dressed.
The candle-holding middle-class youth who turned up in India Gate in New Delhi, and other places across the country, in support of Mr Anna Hazare and his campaign for a citizen’s ombudsman bill (Jan Lokpal Bill) to stem corruption, got a taste of such ire. It was, therefore, quite brave of Mr Kailash Satyarthi, an engineer turned social activist and founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), to organise another candlelight vigil in the city last week. BBA, an NGO, has been fighting against child labour for over 30 years. Last week’s rally called “No More Moins” was part of a campaign to push both the government and ordinary people to do more to end the exploitation of young children.
Moin, in whose memory the candlelight vigil was held, was a 10-year-old boy from Bihar, working in a bindi factory in Delhi. He was beaten to death, and his uncle, the owner of the factory, has been arrested for it. Moin’s body had been taken for burial but the cemetery caretaker smelt foul play and sounded an alert. Television brought the horrific images of his battered body into middle-class living rooms, triggering shock waves. Equally shocking was the response of the minister for women and child development who claimed on national television that she did not know details of the case, three days after Moin’s murder had been a headline-grabber.
But paradoxically, while everyone is justifiably grieving about Moin and the tens of thousands of little boys and girls trapped in sweatshops, there is little angst about many other children who slave away from morning to night in middle-class homes, often without enough food, sleep or regular salary. Nor is there any angst about the tens of thousands of “chhotus” and “ramus” who serve food and drinks at small eateries around the country. Even fewer worry that that these children are being denied education, now a legal right for every child between the ages of six and 14.
Can candlepower ignite middle class revulsion against child labour even in such so-called “safe” jobs? I missed the rally in memory of Moin, but I caught up with Mr Satyarthi, its organiser, later at his home. Mr Satyarthi is a man who smiles a lot but he concedes the tasks ahead are not easy.
As the evening wore on, he narrated many stories about the child labourers he and his colleagues have rescued over the years and about Mukti Ashram — BBA’s transitional shelter for the rehabilitation and education of bonded and other child labourers who are rescued from Delhi and its surroundings.
The one story that made a particularly powerful impression was about a six-year-old boy called Ashraf Ali. Ashraf worked as a domestic help in the house of a government official in Delhi. One evening, the little boy who got barely enough to eat, drank a few sips of the milk that remained in a glass of one of the children in the house. His mistress saw him. What followed was nightmarish. The husband and wife beat the child brutally, placed his hands on fire and placed hot tongs on his limbs. The child soon became unconscious. His body was dumped out on the street, close to where his parents stayed. Mr Satyarthi said he came to know about the incident when someone in the neighbourhood alerted the BBA. Along with his colleagues and family members, Mr Satyarthi took the boy for medical treatment and then he was transferred to Mukti Ashram. Then followed a long battle for justice. Public outcry led to the dismissal of the official and the government was eventually forced to bring in service rules which prohibited its officials from engaging child domestic workers. The incident happened almost 15 years ago. Mr Satyarthi helped Ashraf with not only medical care but also education. The child labourer who almost paid with his life for the “sin” of drinking a few drops of milk is now 20 years old and working at a computer firm.
Fascinated by the story, I called Ashraf. The voice at the other end was of a grown up man who introduced himself as a computer hardware specialist. “Yes, I was very lucky that I survived. But my body bears the scars. I was at Mukri Ashram till the age of ten. Then, I studied through the National Open School and then I got a chance to train in computer hardware and here I am, with a job.”
In 2006, the government enacted a law prohibiting domestic work by children under 14. The law also covered children working in restaurants and hotels. It was a welcome step, but the problem remains.
“Last year, we rescued around 30 child domestic labourers. The homes where they worked were mostly middle class and educated”, says Mr Satyarthi.
Clearly, laws alone will not end child labour. One of the biggest challenges on the ground is changing a mindset which does not see any shame in child labour as long as it is not in a hazardous industry. Many middle-class families choose child workers because they are cheaper than adults and can be browbeaten into doing a lot more work. Some others think they are doing a good turn by employing a child whose family is in need. At the end, all this ends up depressing the wages of adults and keeping more people mired in poverty and illiteracy.
What can the candle-holding middle-class do about child labour when the law has not successfully tackled the problem? The short answer: a lot. Candle-bonding, backed by sustained campaigns, can create peer pressure which can begin to change mindsets.
“We are still fighting mindsets but there is a new generation of young people who find the idea of children working as domestic help revolting. We have stickers saying “This house is child labour free”. If they pressure their elders, if they start boycotting goods made by child workers, and people who hire child workers, it will have an effect”, says Mr Satyarthi.
For the new generation there is a powerful message: It is not right and it is not cool to tacitly accept child labour in one’s backyard . The candleholding urban middle class may be a minority but in an aspiring society, it can set the trend. The next time you go on a weekend drive, see who is serving you tea and washing the plates at the roadside dhaba. If it’s a child, you can go to the next dhaba. And in your neighbourhood park, if you see a 10-year-old pushing a six-year-old on the swing for hours without getting a chance to swing herself, it is time to have a serious chat with the family.
* Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org