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February 10, 1998


Election Issues/Kailash Satyarthi

'Parties disregard laws against child labour'

I have written to 23 national and regional political parties in the country urging them to include the elimination of child labour as an important agenda in their ongoing election campaigns. The politicians's efforts should be to eliminate bonded labour so that human dignity can be restored to millions of children in India.

Every time child rights activists raise the question of child servitude, the government promptly comes up with claims that it is setting up schools to rehabilitate bonded children across the country. But where are these schools? Where are the programmes?

In 1993, the then Congress prime minister P V Narasimha Rao allocated Rs 8.5 billion to rehabilitate and educate bonded child labourers. Till date, not more than Rs 1 billion has been disbursed by the central government for this purpose.

It is sad and tragic that bonded child labour -- an outrage against humanity -- has not yet been wiped out 50 years after India's Independence. The existence of bonded labour is still a dark reality in the country. Laws have failed to make any definite impact on identifying, freeing, and rehabilitating bonded labourers.

Bonded labour originated in the country's uneven social structure characterised by feudal and semi-feudal conditions. The Constitution prohibits trafficking in human beings and forced labour. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also mandates that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Though a government law -- the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act -- abolished bonded labour in 1976, the servitude continues because of lack of political will. Government inaction has perpetuated child servitude. There is no lack of laws in the country, but there is a complete disregard for them from political parties and their leaders.

Government estimates say the country has only 17 million child workers. But statistics with the South Asian Coalition of Child Servitude and other organisations like the International Labour Organisation show that India has more than 60 million bonded child workers and five million adult bonded labourers.

These children are denied their fundamental rights to childhood, to education, and to play and dream like normal children because they have to work for more than 12 hours every day. Most of them children are employed in factories manufacturing matches, fireworks, glass, tobacco processing, cement, and brick kilns in north Indian states.

Since 1991, more than 400 children and adults have died of silicosis in Madhya Pradesh. The slate and pencil factories in Madhya Pradesh are the proverbial death traps for thousands of children. But the government does not care for them and these children are leading a life of slavery and disease in Madhya Pradesh's slate factories. It is truly tragic that the children who should be taught to write on slates are forced to manufacture them.

Since 1981, SACCS has released more than 100,000 bonded child labourers and restored them to their parents. But I doubt if any government in the past five decades has initiated any action plan to rescue these children from servitude.

In 1996, the Supreme Court termed bonded labour as an "all-India evil" and ordered the government to launch programmes to rehabilitate and educate them. But the government yet to obey the court directive.

Therefore, SACCS along with other NGOs will urge people not to support or vote for those candidates who do not take up the issue of child labour during their election campaign.

Kailash Satyarthi is the chairperson of the New Delhi-based South Asian Coalition of Child Servitude. He spoke to George Iype.

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