Personal Voices: Child Workers in India

As part of the renovation of my family's new home in India, we are getting the bathrooms remodeled. Three young men arrived one morning to install the tiles. The supervisor, a short, thin man who looked no more than 25, was the oldest of the lot. His thick, droopy mustache and oversized shirt hid his youth. The others were just boys, with skinny limbs, a sprinkling of facial hair and clothing that looked as if it had been outgrown during the night. I feared that they were too young to be working.

"How old are you?" I asked the shortest of the group.

"Fifteen," he replied confidently.

At the local tennis court my husband frequents, another group of boys smooths the clay with a heavy roller at the crack of dawn and picks up balls during matches. They sport worn-out T-shirts with Reebok logos and cast off San Francisco Giants caps. These boys earn a part of their daily wages from this job. My husband once asked the youngest-looking his age.

"Fifteen," was the casual reply.

At first we believed these and similar responses. In India, where malnutrition is common, many look undernourished. It is hard to guess ages, particularly of children, and age is particularly difficult to verify since many births are unregistered.

But as the days progressed, we came across more and more 15-year-olds -- maids, gardeners, waiters and the like, and I began to make the connection. Child labor laws in India, I found, forbid employment of anyone under 14. Most likely the working children we had encountered were below legal working age. No doubt their employers were aware of this fact and were familiar with the law.

An estimated 100 million working children live in India. Child labor is not restricted to the rural areas, where children engage in back-breaking agricultural work, but is common in cities. Working children are kept from school, and the self-perpetuating cycle of illiteracy that fuels poverty becomes harder to break.

Large numbers of families migrate from villages to India's urban areas looking for employment. In order to boost often-meager household incomes, many families send their kids to work as domestic help. The children watch infants and toddlers, mop floors, and wash dishes and cars. The ones who don't work, beg.

In tree-lined parks I have seen a preschooler dressed in Nike shoes being helped onto a playground slide by a slightly older, grubbier child. The Nike child's mother (and employer of the dirtier one) sits and keenly watches the interaction. As the mother saunters on high heels toward the car, its door held open by a uniformed chauffeur, the child-nanny follows, awkwardly balancing the preschooler on her hip.

Similarly, in the food court of an exclusive department store, I once saw a girl of about eight dressed in shabby clothes clutching an ice-cream cone in one hand while chasing a naughty toddler. It pleased me that her employers had at least bought a cone for the child. As I continued to watch, however, I realized the little maid was holding the cone for the toddler and feeding him as he ran around the tables.

Because I lived in the United States for more than 12 years, I am probably more sensitive to such sights than others here. In America, I saw plenty of teenagers handing out ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins or flipping burgers for a few extra bucks. But seldom did I see kids so young as I see here working for a livelihood.

As I prepare to move into my own home, I am advised to hire a young girl, no more than 12, someone who can be trained and molded into a reliable maid. In the past it was the moneyed landlords and business people who lived lavishly, employing an army of servants. Now, in urban India, it is commonly dual-income couples with hectic work hours who seek cheap, dependable labor to enable their lifestyles. It shocks me that educated folks would deny the chance for education and carefree childhood to other children. These employers, by providing work that is at least overtly non-hazardous to children of families needing this extra income, consider their acts philanthropic.

Things may be slowly changing. Following orders by India's Supreme Court in late 2001, plans are in effect in many states across the country to encourage attendance at schools by providing midday meals. Studies showed conclusively that provision of these meals encouraged parents to send kids to school. Several private foundations are tackling this issue through networks of volunteers.

Shanta Sinha won this year's Ramon Magsaysay award, Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, for community leadership. She has rehabilitated more than 100,000 children from child labor and moved them into mainstream schools in the state of Andhra Pradesh. And a new bill, if passed, would provide free and compulsory education for children below the age of 14. It includes a provision to levy a fine on those employing kids and keeping them from school.

Meanwhile, I patiently await the day when the 15-year-olds I encounter will carry a burden no heavier than the books they take to school.

Ranjani Nellore is a scientist who has written for India Currents magazine.

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