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.