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Children's Rights Who Knows, Who Cares?
by Ramendra Kumar

"Farhan Khan Shinwari starts work early, before the sun has risen over the red plains of Karkhla, 15 km east of Peshawar in Northwest Pakistan. After a meager breakfast of tea and dry Nan with his brothers, he starts sprinkling water on the mound of red clay they will mix and form into bricks. All around him on the plain, hundreds of illegal Afghan migrants squat barefoot in the clay, forming bricks with their hands for less than a dollar a day. Farhan will work for 13 hours today.

Farhan is four years old.

"A nine year old boy, Sagar, was sacrificed by his superstitious grandfather on Diwali night in the hope that the ritual would ensure the safe return of his missing son. While the whole country was celebrating the 'Festival of Lights', the light was snuffed out of Sagar's life forever."

The first piece is part of a feature which appeared in a recent issue of Time magazine while the second is a news report from Dhumka, Jharkhand, published in The Telegraph, Calcutta dated 20th November.

Miserable Plight 

If you think the events in the life of Farhan and Sagar are isolated incidents. you are quite mistaken. The plight of the majority of children, the most vulnerable section of the society, is miserable wherever you look - especially in our part of the world. 

Take the case of Subbu. He is employed in a factory in Sivakasi which manufactures firecrackers. He works with hazardous chemicals whose toxic dust he inhales day after day. He works for ten to twelve hours and earns not much more than the price of a hamburger.  

Or think about Irfan who works in a glass factory in Ahmedabad. It has furnaces where the temperature rises to more than 1400 degrees Celsius. And what about Venkat who rolls beedis the whole day and will in all likelihood end up with tuberculosis by the time he reaches twenty. And then there is Meena who spends the entire day in a carpet factory on the outskirts of Lucknow, her dainty fingers moving mechanically hour after hour. Are these names too exceptions? No they are not. Just look around: the rag pickers who fight with dogs and pigs for pieces of scrap, the 'chokra' in the dhaba who gets beaten for spilling water, the girl who works as a maid in your neighbor's house and is thrashed for expressing the desire to learn the alphabet, the shoe shine boy in the train, the newspaper hawker at a busy traffic junction of your dazzling city and many, many more. They work for more than 12 hours a day without a break or holiday and get paid only half or one third of what an adult is paid.

It is estimated that about 5.5 crore (55 million) children in India between the ages of 5 and 14 are laborers. India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child laborers in the world - one in every four working children in the world is an Indian!

Even though a Supreme Court ruling in 1996 declared that an existing child prevention law should be more strictly enforced and that no child under 14 should be allowed to work in hazardous industries, no one cares a damn. This law is merrily flouted. 

In the under-developed third world countries, the median age of children who enter the work force is seven. Two years ago it was eight. Two years from now it may be six. In the lowest castes, children become laborers almost as soon as they can walk. 

According to UNICEF & ILO
Around the world today, some 250 million boys and girls between the ages of five and 14 are exploited in hazardous work conditions, according to the International Labor Organization. Most of these children live in the developing world, but even in industrialized countries such as the United States, hundreds of thousands of underage boys and girls are at work in sweatshops, farm fields, brothels and on the street.

Children's Rights:

I don't know how many of you are aware that UNO has pronounced Ten Children's Rights. These are:

  1. Right to be loved.

  2. Right to nutritious food and good health.

  3. Right to education.

  4. Right to entertainment coupled with proper physical growth.

  5. Right to get his/her nationality in his/her name.

  6. Right to get other's attention in distress.

  7. Right to relief in cases of natural calamities.

  8. Right to nurture and develop their inherent skills and abilities so as to be a useful member of the society.

  9. Right to nurture humanitarian values and goodwill with others.

  10. Right to guard against forces dividing the country on caste, religion and other grounds.

How many of the Indian children can claim to enjoy these rights? 

It is pathetic that even after more than five decades of our country's independence the majority of the Indian children have to struggle for even such basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, let alone think about such 'luxuries' like 'developing inherent skills and abilities' and 'nurturing humanitarian values'. 

Some time back I had the occasion to interact with juvenile delinquents in Rourkela Jail. I spent around two hours with them. I chatted with them, I told them stories and we even talked about the 'crime' for which they had been sent to jail. Most of them were in the age group of eight to fifteen. Quite a few had been convicted of petty crimes while three of them were facing charges of murder. 

The more I talked to them the more I was convinced that there was nothing abnormal about them. They were as normal as any child - they had the same dreams, the same hopes - they loved Amitabh Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan. They enjoyed singing and dancing, flying kites and playing cricket. They wanted to grow up and take care of their parents. And all of them wanted to go to school and study. 

So what had turned them into criminals? This is one question we all should think about. 

The Root Cause:

Every 14th November we celebrate Children's Day with great fanfare all over the country. Leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and other celebrities visit slums, orphanages, jails. They distribute sweets, clothes, toys, give profound speeches, deliver sermons on the duties and responsibilities of the citizens of tomorrow. And then they go back to their cocoons of affluence and luxury leaving the children to rot. 

Kids can't revolt, they can't take to the streets and most important they can't vote. So naturally no one bothers about them. They can be used, misused and abused with impunity.

So then what is the solution? 

Obviously, there are no quick answers. However, I firmly believe that it is illiteracy which is the root cause of poverty and exploitation. If the poor could be given education, made to understand their rights and responsibilities they wouldn't subject their children to such torture. If they were educated they would realize the importance of small family norms. With lesser mouths to feed there would be less reason for children being sent out to contribute to the family kitty. If the poor were educated they would understand the value of education and send their children to school rather then sending them to hell holes to earn money.

Now the question comes who is going to impart this education? The government? Hardly. We know how effective the efforts of the government have been in enhancing literacy in the country. We, you and I, have to chip in. We are the fortunate ones who have been given an education and it is high time we share this knowledge with those who have been denied the option of acquiring it.

Each One Teach One

Some time back the Indian Government had launched a literacy programme called 'Each One Teach One'. Even then I had liked the idea immensely, though it had failed to take off. I think this campaign should be re-launched - not by the Government but by us, you and I, if we consider ourselves the concerned and committed citizens. We should identify the illiterate in our vicinity and teach them the basics of not only the three Rupees but also about hygiene and health. And by we I mean both adults as well as children. Father and daughter, mother and son can teach together and also be taught together. 
This might sound simplistic to many of you. But please keep in mind that all great revolutions have begun with a simple step and eventually led to terrific results. 

An old and frail man picked up a handful of salt, on a beach in 1931, and rang the death knell of the biggest empire in the history of human civilization. 

We too can make a small beginning. Each of us can pick up a single soul shrouded in ignorance and lead him (or her) on the well lit path of knowledge. All it needs is a little bit of effort, a little bit of commitment and a tiny voice in our minds and hearts that will urge us on to make the lives of those around us a little better.

Only then can we hope for a world where a four year old Farhan does not have to slave for thirteen hours and a nine year old Sagar does not have to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali.  

A Note From Ramendra Kumar
A big hello to you my young friends. I don't know whether you are aware that December 10, every year, is celebrated as Human Rights Day. Human rights has always been a very emotional issue exploited by politicians, media persons, women's activists, youth leaders, social workers and anyone else you can think of. But in all this noise and din the rights of children seem to have been completely forgotten. For instance how many of you know that United Nations Organization (UNO) has pronounced 10 Rights for Children. And what are these rights? You will be surprised to learn that many things which we take for granted are denied to millions of children the world over.

This time I have decided to interact with you on Children's Rights. And instead of a story I have for you an essay: Children's Rights : Who knows, who cares?

I hope this issue touches you as deeply as it touched me. I hope it will make you sit up and take notice of the 'children of the lesser God' around you. And I pray it will make you forget your little troubles and make you realize how fortunate you are to have good food to eat, a warm bed to snuggle in, beautiful clothes to wear and the love of parents and relatives and friends. This reminds me of a quotation which I read when I was your age and which left a deep impression on me:

"I cried because I had no shoes, until I saw a child with no feet."

And before I sign off may I request you to exercise your right to write. I will be looking forward to your responses.   

18-Nov-2001
 
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