By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
''Children's Day" is celebrated all over the country on the 14th November, which happens to be the birth anniversary of Pandit Jawaharial Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who is also regarded as the architect of modern India. He loved children and the children adored him. Because of his popularity with the children his date of birth is celebrated as "Children's Day" for the young kids. On this day various institutions and organizations hold diverse functions for the entertainment of the children, who derive immense pleasure from the delightful events.
Though the day is dedicated to the children, yet there are some of them, for whom "Children's Day" means absolutely nothing and they are not even aware that there is a special day, which is meant exclusively for them. They do not have the least idea about the significance of the day. Perhaps they are born to suffer and not to enjoy. From early childhood they are destined to go through a life of drudgery and of acute misery. These children are the unloved, uncared and unprotected dregs of society, who are treated as social outcasts. These children struggle throughout the day to earn a little amount of money to feed and help their respective families as well as to maintain themselves. They have not been fortute enough to step into the portal of a school. That is why the celebration of "Children's Day" does not impress them in the least, since for them it is a jumble of words without any meaning.
The number of child workers in the world is staggering and it has become a burning issue to be discussed by various organizations as well as by the governments of various countries. In our own country, including our state, we come across many child workers engaged in various capacities. It is a fact that rural children work harder than their urban counterparts. They do various types of work at home and also have to work in the fields, since agriculture is the main occupation in the villages. Consequently they are subject to harsh climate, long working hours, heavy loads and toxic chemicals.
In many developing countries, including India, many children work in textile, clothing, carpet, foot wear, glass and fire work industries. They are also engaged in gemstone polishing, salt, lime stone and mosaic chip quarrying industries. Many of these industries are highly hazardous for the health and well-being of the children, but the employers and the society seem to be least concerned about that. These little children are deprived of their rights as children. Some of them are working in tea plantations, where they pick tea for a long time and as a result suffer from bruises, and frequent fever due to long working hours in humidity.
The union government apparently has imposed a ban under the child labour act, 1986, on the employment of child workers. This act prohibits children from employment on hazardous occupations like mines, railways, sale of fireworks, bidi making, carpet weaving, manufacture of soap, matches, cement etc. It also prohibits employment of children in dhabas, restaurants, tea shops, and private homes, hotels etc. These children go through acute physical and mental torture, including sexual assaults. They do not get adequate food to maintain their health. Hence on the recommendation of the technical advisory committee of the Ministry of Labour, headed by the Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research, the union government imposed the ban on child labour under the age of 14. But in spite of the ban we still see many child workers engaged in diverse capacities, some of which may be hazardous for their health and well-being.
In our own state we see little children engaged in various occupations to earn a meagre amount of money for themselves as well as to maintain their respective families in a hand to mouth existence. Some little children have to bear the entire responsibility of providing meals and other necessities to their families. In garages, tea stalls, construction sites, dhabas and in various industries and business houses, child workers below the age of 14 can be seen in large numbers. In the garages the dirtiest part of the job is relegated to the little workers, since the adult mechanics deem it to be below their dignity to do such work. In road side stalls they work as dish-washers, waiters and water-carriers. In every occupation they are given the dirtiest and the hardest part of the job. Children, working in construction sites, carry more loads on their heads than they can bear. Often they go without food due to lack of money and the bouts of starvation take their toll in the long run.
Many of these little children, both boys and girls, are serving as domestic helps in private homes, working themselves to the bone just for a bare survival. The employers are rarely kind to them and they make these children work much harder than their emaciated bodies can bear. These kids take over all the household chores—from cooking to washing to any other back-breaking job—and after all that they get nothing but ill-treatment as their reward. They are abused and beaten black and blue for any little fault by many of their employers. They are at the beck and call of the pampered over-fed children of their employers. They cannot raise their voices in fear and the employers take full advantage of their poverty and helplessness.
In fact, most of the employers prefer little children than adults for petty and hard menial work, since their wages are minimum and they cannot protest against the injustice meted out to them, though sometimes they do run away from tyranny—only to fall back into a worse situation, which is like jumping from the flying pan to fire. These children have to bear all sorts of physical and mental torture and for the girls it is worse, since they often fall prey to the lecherous advances of many lascivious employers. These small children go through a kind of living death, while the society stands by and watches indifferently.
It is very sad really, that even when we are in the 21st century and when the country is making such enormous scientific and technological progress the majority of our children are half-clad, half-starved and illiterate. At an age when they should have played games with their friends, learnt lessons in the class rooms, got engrossed in the world of famous five as rrated by Enid Blyton or in the adventures of Harry Potter, as depicted by Elizabeth Rowling, these little children are toiling hard for a bowl of coarse rice to survive in this cruel world of ours and are staring into a bleak future. So many of them turn into loafers, ruffians, pick pockets, petty thieves or drug peddlers in sheer frustration. Some of them turn into beggars chasing pedestrians for some measly coins. Society condemns them and we avoid them as nuisance. But very few of us have ever tried to have a glimpse into their unexplored minds. They live in total darkness—physical and mental; their minds are full of unfulfilled dreams.
Children all over the world have the same desires, same mischievousness and the same innocence. But many of them are burdened by every kind of "have nots". No wonder they lose their innocence before time. Their childhood passes them by without being noticed, and they become compelled to tell lies, cheat, steal and get immersed in all kinds of vices. Possibly that is their revenge on a cruel society.
For a tion to be progressive and prosperous children must be educated, since they are our future. Education is the birth right of every child. It is the duty and primary responsibility of the state to enforce this right. The hope of the county rests on the children; some of them might one day be called to lead the tion. For that education is of prime importance. Books are the windows through which they can see the light of this vast world of ours. But the windows are closed for them, and they become like the "prisoners of the cave", as Plato envisaged, who cannot distinguish between the shadow and the reality. Only education can dispel their mental darkness and awaken their hidden talent, so that they may be able to discrimite between fake and genuine. It was the Father of the tion who once said that the "essence of education lies in drawing out the best in you". But till now Mahatma's dream has not been translated into reality.
Ban on child labour and introduction of compulsory primary education go side by side. And it is not a new notion. In pre-independent India, significant efforts were made to introduce universal free compulsory basic education. Gokhale, one of the freedom fighters, gave importance to universal free compulsory basic education and made an effort to make education compulsory. On 19 March, 1910, he moved a resolution in the Imperial Legislative Council, "A beginning should be made in the direction of making elementary education free and compulsory throughout the country". The bill was, however, rejected. Another effort was made by Gandhiji and Dr. Zakir Hussam, what is known as Wardha scheme of education.
A child has as an equal right to education as he has right to food, clothing and protection of the parents. Just as food, clothing, home and protection are necessary for his physical needs, education is necessary for his mental development. Since man is a combition of body and mind, both these aspects must be given due attention. But the mental aspect is rarely taken into account. In case of the economically backward section it can be noticed that mere survival is considered to be enough, that is, if physical requirements are met, very few considerations are made for the child's mental development. But both mental and physical aspects must be given due consideration to make the child a "whole man". Very often we hear about compulsory education schemes and ban on child labour. Several half-hearted schemes have been implemented for giving education to children. But till now they have not succeeded in achieving the goal. Even the mid-day meal scheme to bring children to the study table has become a dismal failure.
India has two distinct classes of people—rich and poor. There is a vast chasm between these two classes. The rich forms only a very small minority and the children of these families are born with golden spoons in their mouths. They go to the best of schools and with parental influence mage to hold their positions in society, though they may be lacking in talent. But a country cannot prosper with a handful of educated and affluent people. For the all-round development of a tion we must take into account the majority, most of who languish in utter darkness. They do not lack in talent, but lack in resources and influential back ground, which have become indispensable for success in this country of ours. You may have an abundance of talent—but without the necessary props one may not be able to have the grand success, which he or she so richly deserve. Because of the lack of opportunity many unknown geniuses may have been lost in oblivion.
So much has been said—so much has been written about compulsory education and the problem of child labour, but so far they have remained singularly ineffective. Child labour cannot be wished away and literacy be whistled in by the wave of a magic wand. The project of "Sarva Slksha" is a laudable effort on the part of the government to educate all the children of the country. But for the success of the project the parents must be made aware of the value and importance of education. They have to understand that they must not ruin the future of their children by keeping them illiterate. It is also very true that we cannot blame the parents for sending their children to earn money and lead a life of drudgery. They are poor people struggling to survive through poverty, and with the best of intention they are uble to send their children to school, as they need every rupee earned by the child. If the child works elsewhere the parents at least have one less mouth to feed. You cannot impart education to a hungry child, nor can you teach him morality. Physical needs often supersede mental aspirations. They are too strong to ignore.
These deprived children do not even know that there is a day, which is exclusively meant for them. Hence the festivities of children's day elude them and it is just like any other day for them. "Children's Day" will be meaningful only if all the children, belonging to the affluent and economically backward section, can be able to participate in the programmes.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)