Should children only play when they are very young, and as they grow older, either play or learn ? I don't subscribe to this school of thought. Work never hurt anyone, not even children. So right from the day they are old enough to do so, children should be encouraged to particiapte in household work. Whether its making their bed or putting things away or chopping vegetables or watering the greens or embroidering handkerchiefs or doing such repair jobs as they can ------ the sooner children begin, the sooner they will learn the dignity of labour, the sooner they will imbibe all the precious lessons that work alone can teach.
But if the child is made to work to earn his bread and butter, is that conscionable?
If the child begins at the crack of dawn, slaves through the day, and doesn't get to bed till late at night, do we accept that?
If the child is kicked and slapped and pushed around and treated like a slave, do we still say that its not a bad idea if children are made to work?
If the child is put to work in a hazardous environment, which could well cut short his life, or irretrievably damage his health, do we still nod in the affirmative when asked whether child labour is alright?
If the child longs to play in the sun and get wet in the rain and fly with the wind, is it not a crime to make him wait on tables?
If the child is deprived of education so that he remains, even when he grows up, unskilled and unlettered and no more able to earn a decent living than as a child, is that not a life wasted?
If the child doesn't work, he may well starve ---that's an argument advanced by many who find child labour abhorrent but do not oppose it for this seemingly good reason.Why should the child starve? Why should a country that signs multi billion deals for nuclear power plants not undertake to feed every child? Do we not have the resources? We do ---what we lack is the political commitment, which will not come till the middle class that can drive such an agenda is satisfied with the specious argument that the child will starve if he doesn't work.
An equally specious argument is that it is the parent's responsibility to feed the child he brings into the world.I do not dispute the parent's moral responsibility in this regard, but if the State fails in its responsibility to provide employment to all those willing to work, and parents are therefore faced with the awful sceptre of their children crying themselves to sleep on hungry stomachs, the fault lies not with the parents but with the State. Were this the age of despots and divine rights, the responsibility of the State could perhaps be disputed. However, in an age where all but a small majority of States profess to be welfare States, and in a country whose Constitution makes this declaration in ringing tones, the State's responsibility to offer work to all those willing to work cannot be gainsaid.
There are those who argue that the abolition of child labour and the concomitant implementation of children's right to education should be done in a phased manner. The Western world lived with child labour for centuries, they argue. Why do we wish to abolish it overnight? To impress upon the Western world that our humanitarian facade glitters no less than theirs? To get business from countries that insist on certification that child labour has not entered the goods they buy? We should not get swept away by these considerations, some people argue, but remain firmly rooted in the Indian reality and let child labour die a slow and gradual death.
This argument astonishes me. We, who pride ourselves in being one of the most ancient civilizations of the world that reached the acme of philosophical thought even before others began living as human beings, need to learn no lessons from the Western world regarding a very fundamental human value ---our duty to cherish our children ----nor to impress them. We must do what we must because we must, and to consider doing it in a 'phased manner" (what dreadful bureaucratese) is to condemn millions of children to misery without even hearing their cry.
Do we also not need to remember that these millions of children are India's future? Do we expect them to know their civic responsibilities, to be as economically productive as they can be , to take fierce pride in their nation and be of firm resolve to solve its problems if we cannot free them from labour, give them food, place them in schools?
Does the middle class, ensconsed in comfort, benefiting the most from India's growth story, and applauding the country's growing presence on the global stage, not have a responsibility towards these children? Will we not hear their cry, even if the cacophony of the Kalmadis and Rajas and Radias and Ambanis drowns it?