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Munna and some questions on child labour

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: March 14, 2013, 1:59 PM IST
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Usually I do not like to bring in my personal experiences while writing. Let me make an exception here and tell you the story of a boy in our neighbourhood and raise some questions which came to my mind recently.

We recently moved to Salt Lake, Kolkata. Being upper-middle class Indians, we have the privilege of women working as domestic helps and people coming to take our clothes for ironing. The person who used to come till recently to take our clothes for ironing is a young man from Bihar's Vaishali district. Let's call him Guru. He is perhaps just above 18 but already quite efficient at the business he runs from a small kiosk in our neighbourhood. When he took leave during the Chaat Puja, he was replaced by another friend of his, another young man, about twenty years of age. They are poor but smart enough to do the business that they are into. Clothes got ironed and delivered on time. And somehow they liked it when I asked them which district of Bihar they come from and when I tell them that I have been to Bihar for work.

All was well. Then something happened that deeply disturbed us.

A few days back we found Guru knocking on our door with an assistant. The assistant was a short, fragile young boy and certainly below the age of 14. My wife, who works on child rights, was shocked and furious. She asked Guru why this young boy was not in school and why he was doing this work.

Guru smiled and said that he did not like to go to school and was wasting his time: "Bhatak raha tha". So he brought him to work for him.

We were not convinced. We asked the boy (let's call him Munna) why he did not like to go to school. He felt a little scared. Then he said, "Aisai (just like that)".

Couple of days passed. Munna used to come to collect the clothes for ironing. I asked him several times, "Would you like to go to school?" He always gave a simple answer, "No". It was also obvious that he was enjoying his work and feeling that he was doing something worthwhile. His body language had changed as he picked up the skills.

However, it was not possible for us to accept that a child labourer would come to us to collect the clothes. So we told Guru that he should come or we would go and give the clothes. Guru accepted. But it was something he did just for our household. Munna has not gone back to school. It was not possible for us to probe Munna's reluctance in detail as the matter is sensitive but it is more than likely that school was not a pleasant experience for him and hence he left. He also understood that his future will be that of a worker and therefore the sooner he starts picking up the skills, the better it will be for him.

This small incident raised a few questions in my mind: is the school necessarily a good place and is work necessarily a bad thing for poor children? Our current discourse on child labour and education seems to make such an assumption without going into the details of the situation. While Right to Education and Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan is trying to take every child to school and the government is providing free schooling up to the age of 14, are we also asking whether the schooling process is enjoyable for the students? Are we asking whether the school is an abode of learning or a torture chamber? Are we sure that the schools in rural India are never causing psychological damage to the children when the children are slow learners or coming from backward communities? Are we not forgetting that a bad school can do serious damage to a child?

On the other hand, is work necessarily bad? Of course, when we are talking about hazardous work, the matter is simple - of course children should not be involved in such activities. But when work is not hazardous, is it possible that a 12-year-old kid may learn the skills of his future profession by becoming a trainee? Is it possible that children like Munna may develop a sense of self-worth by starting to earn a living? Is it possible that work will also teach Munna discipline, how to be organised and elementary arithmetic? In other words, is 'work' necessarily a negative experience for a poor child? Or can it be something that the likes of Munna may actually enjoy more than going to a bad school?

Finally, is it possible that our discourse of child education and child labour is based on our sense of guilt about being privileged? I wish I knew the answers. But let me raise the questions.
First Published: March 14, 2013, 1:59 PM IST