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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

An inhuman bondage

February 07, 2003

Children shouldn't work for a living. During a century of enlightened legislation around the world, minimum standards of human conduct have been forged into the laws of free societies, and these are repeatedly raised to greater heights as civil rights groups organise better.

The equal standing of women, the abolition of torture, strictures against racism and religious intolerance -- these all fit a familiar pattern; beginning from the demands of a few and joined by the moral and intellectual advocacy of others, they have gradually gained broader support, and over the course of time become deeply wedded to our idea of a progressive society. The economically unfettered child is one such ideal.

In India, as elsewhere, laws against the employment of children are plentiful. Sadly, as with numerous other instruments on the books, their enforcement is fitful and selective. Administrators either deny the obvious, or profess inability to act seriously against violators; the few instances of legal action against offenders are not sufficiently wide-ranging to be taken seriously. Only a particularly gruesome event -- say, the death of children working in an explosives factory -- or the publication of a new report on child labour, wakes the populace into an otherwise forgotten reality.

Human Rights Watch's new report on bonded child labour presents such a moment. This document, titled Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry, isn't merely a record of children in the workforce; that failure we are only too familiar with. This is research into a more egregious violation, an accounting of the 15 million children held in bondage as a routine condition of their employment, perpetually paying loans and bonds that are too usurious to overcome. By any measure of civilised conduct, we would conclude that the economic shackling of adult lives to employment is akin to slavery; when thrust upon children this is simply inhuman.

Tales of perpetual bondage, of course, aren't new to India, or even to most Indians. Despite a plethora of laws and policies outlawing the employment of children in various industries, and prohibiting bondage of any kind whatsoever, millions of adult labourers are tethered to their jobs, and millions more kids are left with little alternative but to expend their childhood in labour. An earlier Human Rights Watch report in 1996, titled The Small Hands of Slavery condemned the government's inactivity -- the failure to study, accurately report or acknowledge the incidence of bonded labour, and to enforce its own laws. Appallingly, within the silk industry HRW found that nearly all child workers who were not the children of employers were bonded.

At the root of the continuing tragedy is a deliberate indifference to the plight of the working child. An important consideration is caste, and to a lesser degree, religion. Nearly all bonded workers, children and adults, are Dalits or Muslims. Almost always the majority of the poor, these communities have no voice in a system that allegedly guards their rights. Local administrators, likely to be held accountable for insufficiently tackling the problem, simply deny it exists. The police are unreliable allies, and even the few exceptions are easily thwarted by powerful employers in their jurisdictions. The government's promises made in response to the 1996 report were empty -- those assurances were given with the spotlight clearly upon the state's failures, and served only to deflect criticism then. The government even refused to provide HRW statistical information on prosecutions for bonded labour. With good reason -- very few are carried out.

The passage of the intervening years between the two reports has produced little change. A signatory to nearly every international convention on child rights, India nonetheless routinely abandons the working child to a life destined for poverty and bondage. In the silk industry, HRW has recorded physical degradation of working children -- working in cramped and hazardous conditions for less than the legal minimum wage, and frequently abused by employers, sometimes sexually. No reasoning can explain away the horror of a child chained to a wall to restrict his mobility, or beaten with a belt for a workplace violation. An India that fails her children so cruelly is an affront to each of her citizens.

This chronicle of depraved indifference to child labour isn't all of the report; it also includes a lengthy list of recommendations to state and national governments who are charged with protecting the rights of children. Beginning with an investigation into the enforcement of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act of 1976, these include a range of governmental initiatives to emancipate the working child, including -- importantly -- the establishment of a National Commission for Children. Several of the recommendations also recognise the intertwined nature of problems confronted by the poor. The right to education, for instance, if meaningfully guarded, would free many bonded children from their employment.

These are fine suggestions; local and national administrators must respond earnestly. But if unconcern for the working child has remained widely prevalent, then why would the authorities feel compelled to act on them now? Shouldn't Human Rights Watch expect that governments will simply deny the seriousness of their failures, make half-attempts to tighten their watch momentarily to assuage what little outrage is raised, and thereafter return to their unmindful state? After all, the report is full of quotes from responsible government figures repeatedly denying that bonded child labour exists in India; what hope can there be that the shamefully negligent will now be forced to act?

Zama Coursen-Neff isn't so pessimistic. The demand for reform and humane working conditions, says the children's rights advocate and author of the new report, must be raised at several levels, and not only when someone highlights such gruesome realities. Continuous monitoring and reporting may be the chief role of the rights organisation, but the guardianship of humanity rests with everyone. It is the routine expectation of lawful and decent conduct that will liberate the bonded child. 'We do our part,' she says, 'but this is also a partnership with others -- the media who report on these atrocities, the people who can influence these children's lives by their conscientious buying, the lawmakers, and so many others.'

The complexities aren't lost in her passion, but there is no mistaking the directness, either. 'We don't call for boycotts,' says Coursen-Neff, 'we realize that livelihood issues are serious, and getting the children thrown out of their jobs will not help. So we persuade, litigate, inform, and do everything else we can. The employer has a huge hold -- the labouring child does not even know his rights, he can't read, the terms of the bond are set by the employer, and inordinate rates of interest make sure the debt is never paid. The bond is just a mechanism to secure indefinite labour at little or no cost. Most bonds are for less than Rs 5,000, but they take years to pay, and usually there are other tragedies that intervene and the child's family has to borrow again, long before the debt can be paid.'

'Advocacy works,' says Zama, 'including shaming employers and bureaucrats into doing the right thing.' But those groups aren't her only intended audience, the rights activists speak partly to us too. 'Consumers who simply ask if their products have been made with child labor can make a difference -- by sending an important signal that they are concerned.'

Emancipating the working child is more than an act of liberation; it must be the conscientious choice of an informed people acting for the public good in other ways too. The denial of opportunity we see in the lives of labouring children is only the visible surface of failure, and meaningful solutions must begin deeper. The schooling of every child and the food security of every family must be guaranteed by a progressive social framework; poverty must not preclude these. We cannot afford a society that is reformed only when its failures are too stark to ignore. Instead we must seek positive change in every facet of it, and even further, in the minutiae of the choices we ourselves make in each.

In time, the Indian child, like her counterparts in other nations, will acquire greater moral protection against exploitation in addition to the limited legal safeguards now in place. The child who scrubs and cleans our homes, makes carpets and firecrackers for a living, picks recyclable material from our heaps of garbage, and is repeatedly denied the barest opportunity at self-development will one day strike the conscience of enough Indians to be freed of her bondage.

The question for those who merely await that day is this -- should the onerous life of the working child not outrage us today? Progress towards the ideal, we have seen, follows from the diligence and the earnestness of the few who seek it. Our charge is simple -- to belong among the reformers, and to strengthen their hand.


Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 28

Sub: bad to hire kids,

kids must be given good food,good water, education. and safe house, and kind parents, and healty friends. for those lesser forunate, kids, part time education ...

Posted by vas1

Sub: No word about over population?

I am against any kind of slavery including bonded labour both for children and adults. The children need to have education as high as possible ...

Posted by Nilesh Mangaonkar

Sub: child labour

bad, to make children work, when they ought to have enjoy education, benefits ought to be enjoyed.. by them, a happy childhood, makes a happy ...

Posted by vasan


Actually, it is not the economy that shd make place for them, but our schools. Somehow, there is plenty of money for missiles, plenty of ...

Posted by mithun sorabji

Sub: Ashwin Mahesh: An inhuman bondage

Weel, i am not against child labour but dead against bonded or forced labour(child/adult). in our countries it is a necessity of these poor children ...

Posted by rasput



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