Yet another Plan to end child labour

The state labour department is drawing up its third Action Plan on Child Labour in the space of nine years. The most the Plans seem to achieve is a shifting of the deadline to end child labour — this time to 2020. Simultaneously, the education department is busy drawing up rules to implement the Centre’s momentous Right to Education Act which has come 60 years too late. Never mind — better late than never.
A dominant feature in all Action Plans on Child Labour has been the acceptance of child labourers as a fait accompli and thus the plan’s focus on their rehabilitation involving stipends, bridge schools and measures to address their families’ difficulties. But the fact is that more than 95 per cent children are enrolling in Class 1. Then, why is none questioning why the education department allows them to drop out, education having been declared a fundamental right by the supreme court decades ago?

Ostrich-like behaviour
Strangely, the education department defines a drop-out as a child which has not attended school for 90 continuous days. Children are bound to become child labourers during this lengthy period of the education department’s ostrich-like behaviour of closing its eyes to the phenomenon. Could not the same measures of addressing the child’s and the family’s vulnerability been undertaken at the very first signs of the child being absent, say for three days instead of 90 days? Why do none of the Action Plans on Child Labour or education Acts have a protocol for the education and other departments for this?
If the education department were to forestall dropping out by identifying and giving stipends to vulnerable children and getting other departments to address the constraints of the families, on condition that the child attends school, the problem of further drop-outs and rehabilitation of child labourers would not arise.

It seems that some CSOs too are happy to run rehabilitation schools for child labourers with grants from various sources and are loathe to work with schools on total retention of enrolled children, lest the stream of drop-outs for them to rehabilitate dries up, putting in peril the very raison d’etre of their existence.

None can deny that much needs to be done with regard to the poor quality of schools to retain children. But by always harping only on the poor quality of schools as the main cause of children dropping out, critics are ensuring that less attention is paid to the more often-quoted reasons of poverty and lack of basic services and amenities to the poor — such as day-long child care and piped water supply — preventing children from completing even eight years of schooling. The critics are, willfully or otherwise, being a party to the age-old but continued tradition of denying education to the poorer classes. This is also making school authorities content to merely look inward at the school and tinker with quality issues, while keeping their eyes and ears closed to the larger societal issues preventing children from attending schools.

However, though the labour department has set up a task-force involving several department heads to prepare the Action Plan, with convergence between various departments as its theme, this writer was witness to two highly-placed education department officials saying, “Convergence between departments will not happen in this lifetime, forget it,” and “Child labour is the concern of the labour department, I don’t want to waste my time discussing issues that are not my concern”.

The distance between the two departments of education and labour was also foregrounded recently by the CM himself announcing  peremptorily that education will be made compulsory until Class X while the latest Action Plan on Child Labour is still talking of 14 years or completion of Class VIII as the age when a child may work.  Should there not be congruence between the age at which compulsory education ends and employment begins?

How many more statistics on the extent of out-of-school children and child labourers shall we keep reeling off decade after decade? How many more heart-rending stories of the violence meted out to child labourers shall we keep narrating? How many more action plans shall we draw up which remain only on paper?

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