Against child labour in iit guwahati

exchanges on it-guwahati’s newsgroups (on its intranet), about child-labour.

dec 30, 2009
Amit Mishra, faculty member, dept of electronics & electrical engineering:

Government has many laws. Making laws is the easiest way to escape welfare obligations. Has anyone ever wondered why a child is working? What mental agony and economic conditions have forced his/her parents to send him/her to work? Please try to visualise the bigger picture. No mother will ever like her kid to work in a mess! If you can not give an alternate better life to the kid, please dont snatch away whatever little he/she has. I am not in favour of child labour. I am just being practical. What can be done (and in fact is done) is to give them a better working environment than they will get in any other place. Because if you drive them off the campus they may end up working in cotton mill or brick-furnace! We can try to ensure that they don’t work more than 6 hours a day; are not made to work on heavy duties; are assured some minimum training and education (for this our NSS volunteers are working their best).

If you have a better plan, please share.

jan 01, 2010
shobhan s, student (semester 6, bachelor of design):

Dear Sir,

I know that this may turn into a near-unceasing debate, whose outcome, whatever it may be, might not even get implemented due to a multitude of factors. Even so, the following is what i have to say…

We all know that children who work, do so in-order to fulfil a need that is more basic than education — the need to be able to feed oneself and one’s kin. There can be a multitude of reasons that compel a child to work: be it orphanhood in the presence of younger siblings, handicapped parents, etc. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: Illegal trafficking, sale of children in lieu of debt-waiver, and myriad other such causes often force Child Labour (CL) into existence. But even if i ignore the latter causes, and focus on situations where CL helps a severely impoverished family to survive — in such a case, if we try to remove the child from his state of work and force rehabilitation onto him/her, we’re committing a much graver crime than the child’s erstwhile employer did. So yes, i understand fully as to how acting blindly as-per-law (in an attempt to eradicate CL) is a foolish thing to do.

However, this is the argument that i have been presented with: “Working conditions on-campus are conducive (by virtue of being non-hazardous). There is also a chance that the Child Labourers (CLers) will get educated (by initiatives which—do note—are still in a nascent stage). Also, letting the CLers go is something that should not be done because those children might then have to work in a bad place.” …That is an appalling thing to say.

If one were to believe that allowing CL to exist for the above-stated causes is a good thing (“because we are nice employers who try to take care of the CLers”) — then, well, why doesn’t the IIT employ only children for all its jobs? Why not have only boys working in all the messes? I am sure there is no dearth of children, and well, we could even screen the children to select only those kids for employment who really are the only-possible bread-winners in their families. Won’t that be such an amazing service to humanity? We’ll even make sure that we enfore low work-hours and try and bring in an NGO to educate the children in the hours that they don’t work. Yes i know — this is a ludicrous suggestion. But it is only a direct outcome of the “it is bad, but it could be worse, so let’s be practical and let the bad exist” ideology.

Next, i shall move onto defining the framework within which my grievances exist — my complaint is based on my displeasure on the use of Child Labourers in Hostel Messes. I would like to hope that these arguments can be noted and used in-order to combat CL on construction sites and such places in-and-around the campus also, but am not demanding that. My focus here is the Mess-system, which i believe is a crime for reasons that i will list out below.

It is pertinent to wonder why it is that the mess (caterer) employs children. Is it because the child:

is a child with fewer demands and thus cheaper to buy and/or employ?
is genuinely an orphan (or likewise) and desperately needed the job, i.e., out of a sense of goodwill?

Does the mess caterer employ anyone who approaches him and can work, and doesn’t differentiate between children and others? I quite doubt that. And even if that IS the case, then i see him having no problems in letting those children go and employing non-child-labourers in his mess (if the institute were to ask him to do that) …after-all, he’d have to pay the same salary to the non-CL replacements, right?

Let’s break this down a bit. Suppose he pays equally to the child, as he would to any other worker in the child’s place. Then, he obviously expects the child to work for the same number of hours and put in effort equal to that of a full-grown man. But obviously, the institute is working towards better working conditions for children (as per the argument i received), so the child can not be allowed to work for that long. So, then the caterer will definitely have to pay less to the child — essentially, if you’d like to allow CL to exist on-campus, then you’d indirectly ensure the the caterer pays less to the child, because you don’t permit the child to work as much. As a result, the caterer may employ more children, so that total hours of work (as output) do not suffer. Else, the quality of service shall drop, and that is another thing that the institute can not permit. So, when, by paying equal-wages-per-hour to the child, the caterer gains nothing, and in-fact stands to get inconvenienced, he’d ideally not employ children. But we can see that this is not true — CL exists. That can only mean that:

the institute does not bother to enforce its goodwill measures upon the caterer, i.e., does not compel him to improve conditions for the child — and he can make the child work for the whole day.
the caterer actually pays less to children, and makes a profit.

I see both of the above happening.

Also, i see no definitive system in-place to ensure literacy to these CLers. so, let’s Forget about going one step ahead of literacy, and trying to impart education.

Sidenote: “Education (used in the argument i received) is the wrong term. The apt word would be Literacy. Working for 6 hours and then attending a night school (or whatever) is not education. Education demands play time, parental influences, etc. and no matter how much the NSS volunteers try, they can not wholly educate anyone. Yes, vocational training can be given (which, i believe is sometimes a more important thing to do than even combating illiteracy — but those are my personal views and needn’t invite a counter-argument), but the NSS or ZIZ initiatives can not seek to educate. I am not trying to belittle these initiatives (i hold them in a lot of regard) — but i’m making an attempt at being realistic.”

I don’t see the mess caterers making any effort (now, or ever) to make the child literate, or any such effort that’d help the child grow/change from ‘cheap-labour’ into ‘a-decently-smart-individual-who’d-require-better-pay’. If the institute believes that it is doing a favour to children by such an act, then expecting initiatives to educate the children is a sorry thing to do. If you’re really serious about making sure that the children get taught, then why not establish a simple school, and compel messes to send children there? Call upon NGOs and other persons who can serve as faculty, and have the NSS/etc intiatives compliment/supplement/assist/etc the regular teaching staff, which itself should be decently trained in such things such as handling children, ECCE principles, et cetera. I am sure that lack of funds will never be an issue for such a venture — think about it, “an IIT would have initiated it, NGOs will love to assist, money will come from anywhere and everywhere, the media will support it”, and it will send ALL the right messages and may also be self-sustainable. We could also extend schooling facilities to other children from the surrounding regions, if this really kicks off and is found feasible. And we will finally be able to face the anti-CL law and dare the Government to try and punish us for keeping child labourers. But if we can not ensure something as concrete as this (or any other idea — i am sure that mine is simply a basic idea, and much much better ones can be thought-of if people really had the courage to implement such stuff), then any other step we take (no matter how well-meant our emotions behind it are) — is a step in support of the evil that CL is.

Note: I am not directing my argument at anyone when i say ‘you’ — i am simply referring to the reader when i say the following: First ensure that you are in a position to enforce rules that complement any permission for CL on-campus (rules such as limited working hours, equal pay, basic schooling or vocational training, etc), and if you can not ensure that, then please do the country a favour by following the nation’s laws, and try not to work around the laws on the basis of arguments that are based on hopeful measures and initiatives which provide a limited scope of solution for the problem we have at hand. If that means that the children might be forced to work in some factory somewhere (because we didn’t let them work here), then so be it — i’ll hope for the nation’s laws to work out a solution at that other place — but when i see that allowing CL to exist here is not doing any significant good to the child, i don’t think that that is a just-enough cause for an IIT to break national laws. The least we can do is show solidarity with the government that we owe so much to. A possible benefit of taking an anti-CL stance is this: the students studying at IITs will go ahead and become ‘someone’s in the world. If they’ve seen their alma-mater be brave and follow laws (even at the expense of the loss of some convenience; since a child labourer is essentially a financial convenience for the employer), then maybe they will work towards eradicating CL (or other good initiatives) with more faith, in whichever places they go, even if doing so is tough to do.

If you believe that the law of the land is not apt, then face it head-on with some concrete solution. Implement (something like, or better than-) what i suggested, and make yourself an example worth following. Else, please follow the law, even if you feel that the direct result of it may harm the few children that you had to let go of. Because the mere gesture of doing so will strengthen the law, and hopefully, enable it to help thousands of children in ways and means that you can not forsee when you are trying to justify the presence of CL on campus with arguments like the ones i’ve read. Also, rescuing a few children will not really change the mindset of the nation, and will be of no use to the millions of other CLers out there in the country. But letting those few kids go and showing solidarity with the law has the capacity to fuel that change in mindset, and hopefully change things for the better.

As a final argument: Note how, even if you allow caterers to employ children, in an attempt to grant the children a better present, you will end up supporting a chain of illegal child-trafficking and forced slave-/child-labour in the nation. We don’t notice how our gestures (which may be well meant) fit into the scheme of things. That is why laws exist. Lawmakers certainly are not fools — they’ve spent years of time, effort and intelligent thought into combatting this problem — some of the leading thinkers of our times are consulted whilst framing such laws. And the anti-Child-Labour laws, thus, are something that i have much faith in. I know they are not perfect, but my attempts should be aimed towards improving these laws, rather than apathetically lamenting about their lack of practicality.

In closing, I am aware that i have countered the arguments of a Professor; that too, one who is more actively involved at changing others’ lives and invoking change than i ever have been. I know that i face a very powerful system in front of me, and that i am a mere student who’s seen littler of life than the persons involved in this discussion. But i hope that my opinion shall not be taken offense to. I do not mean to belittle anyone. I saw an argument that i strongly believed was a result of the “let it be” sentiment that has poisoned a lot of people in this nation, even some of the best amongst us. I only hope to counter that argument, and not the person(s) who it is presented through. I shall hope to see persons from the HSS department or other such humanities, et cetera, bring their expertise to the table. As a youth, i am aware that many of my arguments are naive or underdeveloped, and am very-much open to embracing a stronger stream of thought, if it is suitably presented.

jan 01, 2010
professor kannan pakshirajan, chairman, hostel affairs board, iit guwahati:

The subject matter is currently under investigation, and any action can be initiated only after ascertaining the facts.

some corrections — mostly grammatical or cosmetic — in 2019.