Child labor, or dignity?

A few years back, I was visiting Bombay on vacation. I was standing in front of the McDonalds waiting for a friend, for without Yahoo maps, I had no choice but to wait at a place that I knew well rather than move around in autos and taxis to places I didn’t know. I was watching the McDonalds guard hit some unclad, dirty and underfed street kids, with his staff, to prevent them from begging from the elite clients. Or hit them, if they came near a parked car of a patron. Meanwhile, a map seller tries to sell me a world map, and then moves away to find a possible customer as I don’t seem to be a geography student.

Just then two kids, 12 and 15, clean, well kempt hair, short nails come up to me with just a plastic bag in hand. Wondering what they wanted, I turned to look at them. With empty eyes, the younger kid asks me if he could polish my floaters, that I purchased 3 days back, just for the monsoon rain. Now, Rs 2 may not be a large sum, but then, should I engage in this act? Do I support child labor? And, besides, by asking someone else to polish my slippers am I not acting in an unbecoming manner – taking away their dignity? So, I offered to part with Rs 2 to the kids, but did not want them to polish my shoes. The fact that I was at an a project office and locale for the better part of the day probably influenced this act of supposed philanthropy. But the kids refused. They would not take the money unless I let them polish my floaters. ‘Hum ko beekh nahi maangna bhaiya, hum ko kaam karke pet barna, phir ghar pe bhi paisa bhejna.’ With reluctance I agreed. Touching my feet to remove the floaters kind of set me aback, so I asked the kid to stay two feet away while I give them my floaters. The kid spread his handkerchief on the pavement for me to rest my feet on while he polishes the slipper. A luxury I refused.

The older one then started talking to me about his family and how they were suffering in Rajasthan. On learning that I was not from Pune as he’d thought but from Madras, the kid started off in English. English that he learnt in Rajasthan – broken and accented, but coherent all the same. They left school, in search of work, as they had a sick mother to take care of. Took the next train to Mumbai, in search of work, but finding no work in quite a while, took to boot polishing. But all the same, they didnt have the raw material with them – except for one shiner brush and one discarded shoeshine. He wanted help in financing some more raw materials – shoe polish? Some wax? so that they could start doing business at one of the railway stations. When they finished with my floaters, I paid for the work, and also contributed to his capital for raw material. The chaps were happy, that they could lead a life of dignity – start off with purchasing some polish, and as they get customers, get more stuff.

For many years, I felt my responsibility ended at making a financial contribution now and then. As a volunteer with Vibha for a while, I had been an ardent armchair critic of child labor and people who encourage it. But I guess I just stopped at that, never wanting to see reality for myself, never wanting to understand.

In the above case the kids have taken to working, as they have no other choice. No governmental support, no NPO’s to assist them – honestly NPO’s can’t work with every affected person. But in such a scenario, should a child’s decision to work be encouraged or condemned? Aren’t most kids working themselves out, facing the same situation? Are we justified in asking for a ban on child labor and using child services, without providing them with an option? While in India, I was, just like every other person, following the ostrich policy, not wanting to worry about things I didn’t want to. While in the US, sitting in the cozy confines of an airconditioned office or home, I was ardent against supporting child labor, saying it affected the dignity of the child. But then, if I or any other doesn’t support these kids in their labor, what happens of them? What options do they have? Starve and live on the streets, like the ones mentioned earlier, living at the mercy of the McDonald’s guard? Or lead a life that they think brings a sense of dignity to them because they are not begging?

This incident happened about ten years ago, but I’m still feeling the impact on my philosophy, especially as it relates to Vibha’s mission of educate, empower and enable. There probably is no right answer to many such questions, but the fact is, we can have an impact only if we think and act in a manner that we feel right.

– Muthu

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6 thoughts on “Child labor, or dignity?

  1. abhishekrawat says:

    This reminds of a classic old movie called “Boot Polish” which strongly brought to fore the truth behind child labor in India.

    Although the movie dates back to license-raj India but things haven’t changed a lot for millions of children in India. Yes, they get to work or beg in front of McDonald’s instead of some sundry sweet shop from yesteryears.

    Enabling children to self-sustenance through means which allow them dignity and financial income, through well devised means would be the key. The BIG question is what should be the strategy going forward on this.

  2. Muthu Thirunavukkarasu says:

    Response to Kalyan:

    (Ramdas wasn’t the author, he’s just my publicist ;))

    I read your blog, these two incidents are about nine years apart (I first wrote about this in Jun/Jul 2001), and in a country of over a billion people, about 40% children, it’s just as likely a coincidence. However, even if the intention was scamming, why would kids have to do that? No better reason than to feed themselves and/or their family. Alternately, they are slaves to the begging mafia. Either way, that’s just a deplorable situation that needs to be corrected. The scamming is just the result of the problem, not the problem itself – a clear inability of society to take care of its young, something that should and can be addressed. And that remains the problem, whether the kids were telling the truth or if they were scamming. – Muthu

  3. Sreekanth Pannala says:

    I have seen the reality of child labor up close and I have come to a conclusion that it is a vicious cycle which cannot be stopped unless we ban child labor. First, the parents will not consider having children as a way to get extra revenue for the family. Second, the wages of the parents will drastically increase if we remove all the child labor from the market. Third, the children through schooling will be in a better position to compete in the real world to have a better chance of being successful and don’t fall in the trap of becoming a laborer and procreating more children to continue the cycle. However, this choice comes with lot of pain and suffering in the short run till the system comes to the new equilibrium. I have already seen positive affects from the right to education and SSA where children are in the classrooms rather than on the street begging or working or doing domestic work. We are a large country and things won’t change overnight. We are looking at solutions which will solve the problems over a generation or two and we cannot solve the vicious cycle of child labor/large population unless we make tough and painful choices.

  4. Hyma says:

    Hi ,

    Am new to this vibha, tried to link myself with vibha as volunteer..didn’t get any reply yet.
    Like to share some of my moments on roadside with anybody who can really listen…and try to do something.
    On the way to my work place at a signal, I see 2 small kids begging. One is 4 years old , the other is 5 years old…some pair of kids are like one is 3 years old and other is just 2 -3 months.
    one lies down on the road on a towel as if he is fainted, and the other begs showing that child.
    It sqeezes my heart and I get tears when I see such scenes…and the climax would be a big guy who is the leader of all these kids , comes to them and collects the money from them…and gives some more instructions how to attract people and beg some more…
    The whole crew will be below 7 years and minimum age of 2 months to 3 months…
    I feel like taking them to my home…I cannot do that..due to my family limits I have..I want to open a home for them and atleast give them some food,cloths and the right for being born on earth…

    I don’t know…by saying I cannot take them home, am escaping from the situation…I dont want to escape..I want to join with a team who also feel like me and try to solve atlease some kids problems…

    Thanks for reading this…

    1. ramdas says:

      @hyma: speaking for myself, perhaps the way to avoid “escaping” the situation is to focus on problems afflicting the local community at large, not just one or two individual situations.

      Also, one of us from Vibha will respond to you regarding volunteering opportunities. Thanks for your interest.

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