Saturday, November 25, 2006

Child labour, India, ILO and Ms. Renuka Chowdhury, Union Minister for Women & Child Development

The Indian Express (November 20, 2006) had a story about the Union Minister of State for Women & Child Development Renuka Chowdhury calling for a relaxation on international laws on Child labour. (The highlights of her statement given at the end of this piece).

The minister should be congratulated for boldly calling for a qualification of the international laws on child labour. The courageous lady has the guts to call a spade a spade. Her questioning of the ILO’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy should be taken seriously by the government. It is time India challenged the western standards as the last word on every issue. Time we asserted that certain human rights norms evolved in a particular region do not always have universal applicability. East is east and west is west and there are areas where the twain cannot meet. The ILO’s laws regarding child labour is one of them. A child learning a traditional craft in her home is no more deprived, as the Ms. Chowdhury rightly pointed out, of her childhood as a child subjected to rigorous training to make tennis or swimming star out of her. In the former case the child learns the trade at its own pace, either in the most comfortable environment – the home -, or with a master craftsman who factors in the tender age of the child while imparting the skill. A practice that was followed so successfully for centuries cannot be declared a violation of human rights by the self styled arbiters of human welfare. The Christian west which has appropriated the prerogative of laying down rules for children’s rights, should not forget that Jesus Christ learnt carpentry the most natural way - as an apprentice to his father. I doubt he waited till he became a major before he started his training in the workshop!

Needless to say, the concept of a child picking up the traditional craft from the parent or a master craftsman does not necessarily imply denial of education to him. Training in the craft can/should happen in tandem with school going. Perhaps an alternative school system can be evolved to bring education to such children, where the curriculum is more spaced out and the burden of homework is reduced or done away with till the child reaches the age when he can handle both.

A research into the traditional system of training the child in crafts would show that the child very often enjoys working alongside the parent/master craftsman, particularly since the training does not happen in a structured, regimented way, demanding rigorous time management. The craft is picked up along the way, at a very easy pace. The learning takes place in a relaxed, pleasurable manner, on the child’s own terms. Without any violation of rights or deprival of childhood, the craft is picked up in the most natural fashion, in a manner that creates in the child love for the craft and that expertise leading to its mastery. This expertise is superior to any training acquired in a modern classroom or workshop, as, in the traditional set up, the air the child breathes is permeated with the love and reverence for the craft, its culture and history, its idiom and the way of life it entails.

Ms Chowdhury’s ‘earning while learning’ policy is a call for the revival of a particular system, a particular way of life which is on the brink of extinction, being unable to withstand the pressure from the draconian laws of the Government of India and to survive in the absence of a support system in the competitive market. However, Ms. Chowduhry’s call for its reinstatement gains legitimacy only if the change in policy regarding child labour imperatively incorporates steps to put in place support systems that would ensure that practice of these crafts is life sustaining. The order in which the traditional crafts flourished is today replaced by ‘modern’ economic and vastly different political systems. And with large scale industrialization, liberalization, privatization, and a market driven economy where marketing is a billion dollar business, traditional crafts will require comprehensive government protection for survival, at least till they are rehabilitated; and if the government deals with the issue with a missionary spirit, traditional crafts can become burgeoning business, improving village economy and making rural youth generators of wealth. Government subsidy for the acquisition of raw materials, financial support for infrastructural requirements, aggressively ensuring market for the homespun products, protection from exploitation by big players and retailers, and whatever else that has to be done must accompany the amendment that the minister wishes to bring about.

Finally, monitoring systems should exist whereby any aberration leading to child exploitation is effectively detected and corrected.

If such an environment is created, this move might be a partial answer to the massive problem that has been beleaguering the country for a long time –namely, the huge exodus to the cities coupled with the death of villages. Besides, it will prevent the dying of the crafts while generating employment in an effortless and most natural manner.

Remember what Gandhiji said – take care of the villages and the country will take care of itself.

Highlights of the Union Minister of State for Women & Child Development Renuka Chowdhury’s ’s statement

The ban on child labour should be eased to allow children to pick up traditional crafts such as carpet-weaving within the family structure. “ Traditionally, our arts and crafts have been passed down from parent to child at work place, whether at home or outside. But today, a parent is fined Rs20,000/ if the child is found working at the loom or weaving a carpet. Why can’t the children learn a skill within the family structure that can equip him for the future to earn a livelihood? . . . .The immediate benefit would be that there will not be so many cases of runaway children who get exploited in cities and towns as cheap and quick labour.”

She says that “international laws on child labour have been highly insensitive to local and regional issues. ILO has made sweeping ban on buying products made by children. WE too are signatories to anti-child labour laws without putting our minds to it. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all policy”. She will be forwarding a proposal on this – a ‘learning while earning policy’ – to the Union Labour minister, and hopes that the ‘Labour Ministry will be able to make a case for India’s unique situation and highlight our policy in international fora without being afraid of saying what is right for us”.

· She feels that the blanket ban in India based on the ILO laws, actually denies children the right to a profession or livelihood, preventing them from picking up vital skills passed on by master craftsmen. “Why can’t we have laws where the rights of children are protected in an environment where a child is safe and secure?”

The primary goal of the government which is to ensure that all children have access to education, nutrition and healthcare, should be seen in the context of Indian reality of employment generation, especially in traditional industries”. In 2020, India will be the country with the largest, youngest productive force in the world. Today, there are no rural universities in rural areas; primary education is a mirage outside urban areas. Are we equipping our children to face the future with no proper education or training?”

And finally her clinching query. “We applaud China when it recruits six-year old and turns them into world class gymnasts or the west turns young children into tennis stars through rigorous, grueling training. Why is there a hue and cry only when we want to impart our traditional skills to our children?”

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