‘Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is that he has great expectations.’ This is a quote from Great Expectations, a novel by Charles Dickens. It depicts the growth and personal development of an orphan named Pip. There are many Pips I come across in the normal course of life that it has started disturbing me. They all have great expectations from life. I would like to narrate a recent incident that shook me. Aftab (name changed) is an orphan who lives with his mother, sister and grandfather. He had not been attending classes for the past few weeks and I was getting constant calls from his school asking about his well-being and whereabouts. I was, in turn, constantly calling on his mother’s number and nobody received my calls. This continued for a few days till I actually started worrying and decided to take an auto and visit his house. The entire distance I travelled I kept hoping I would find him in the best of health. I asked the auto driver to stop on the main road which led to his house. His mother had a tea stall there and I thought I should first meet her and let her know. The moment I reached the makeshift shack I was shocked, and speechless. Aftab was sitting there and preparing tea for customers queued up. He looked up, noticed me and I could make out that he was hesitant to look me in the eye. I kept looking at him, not knowing what to ask or what not to ask. A thousand unsaid words must have passed between us as I kept standing there watching him.
Aftab is a bright student, an orphan who deserves a better life. I had made sure he went to school and started taking interest in studies. He was turning out well. What could have prompted him to start working at the tea stall or his mother to get him out of school and make him sit there? Did she not want him to go to school? Had she herself not told me that she wanted him out of the slums and be an “afsar” (officer) when he grew up? Then again, in another incident, a couple of days back I saw three children begging outside a well-known bakery shop in Srinagar. When I asked why, they replied that they needed money to buy themselves notebooks. I could make out that they were not lying, as they happily agreed to come home with me and also gave me complete details about their families. Shame on us as a society watching silently, children involved in Labour and Beggary to sustain themselves. Where is the RIGHT TO EDUCATION which says “For education to be a meaningful right it must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable”. Have we ever bothered to find out how many children are denied this basic right in our State? It is appalling to see lavish amounts being spent on seminars and conferences intended to engage in dialogue with the youth of the State. What dialogue do you intend to have, a few years down the line, with this astounding number of children, who are either out of school or dropouts ? What answers do you have for them? After all, they are growing up to be a part of tomorrow’s youth.
Child labour is becoming increasingly rampant within the valley. Be it carpet weaving, brick kilns, construction sector and now tea stalls and roadside dhabaas. Who do we suppose is to be blamed for this utterly shameful and degrading phenomenon? It’s time for introspection. Unfortunately we do not have something like social assistance or social security rights for children. You cannot abolish something just by making it illegal. Illegality does not abolish things. We have to stop parents wanting their children to be employed. I am pretty sure no parent is actually happy about sending ten year olds to work. The only solution I see is to get the parents to the point where they don't need to send their children to work. This requires abolishing absolute poverty, the destitution in which these people live. It’s not the law which bans things as child labour. It’s the absence of poverty that makes them disappear. Even if child labour was illegal, does anyone think that there wouldn't be children being sent out to work and earn food for the family? Whatever the law said, they would still be out polishing shoes, collecting plastic bottles from garbage dumps, and doing manual labour at construction sites. And no, not for pocket money but so that the family might eat. We must aim at combating the many factors such as poverty, lack of awareness of children's rights and inadequate systems of social protection that give rise to child labour and allow it to persist. While whole of India is making use of RTE and growing ahead in an effort to eradicate illiteracy, it comes as a major surprise that in J&K, the Honourable Chief Minister is still “contemplating” about going ahead and implementing it. Are we not interested in education?
Child labour and poverty is inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labour of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labour to the end of time, says Grace Abbott. Very true and meaningful lines. Elementary and Primary education should be on the priority list of the Government and if not so, the government clearly is not concerned about the children. It does not require rocket science to understand a simple fact that no economic prosperity will ever be possible without education. Poverty can be tackled only when children are educated. The need of the hour is to promote school enrolment, formal as well as informal education, and to see to it that all children are exercising their Right to Education.
The writer is the Managing Trustee of ARNIMAAL a voluntary Organization working in the valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org