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Voice of mercy in a wicked world of work

The Elimination of Child Labour: whose responsibility? By Pramila H Bhargava. Sage Publications. pound;27.50, pound;14.99 (pbk) The continuing, largely unremarked, existence of many millions of children who have to work for a pittance in often lethal surroundings explains much about the human condition. An estimated 250 million children between five and 14 are at work, 61 per cent of them in Asia. The largest number of child labourers is in India, where each adult has spent, on average, only two years in school.

However, injustice and inhumanity also make room for people of grace and courage to thrive. And so we have this account by Pramila Bhargava, a personnel officer with Northern Railways in India, who was seconded for two years from 1998 to work with India's National Poverty Alleviation Project (a United Nations initiative). She went to the district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh on a mission to get children out of the workplace.

First, she toured the district, discovering 903 child labourers in the first 20 villages she visited. She found, for example, children of six and upwards working in fierce heat in stone quarries. One little boy explained why his feet weren't burned on the hot stones. "He made sure that he did not stay at any place too long. Some children also expressed fear of the big stones rolling down and hurting them. Accidents of this kind were quite frequent."

She found children growing cotton and groundnuts, rearing silkworms, weaving, cattle herding. All were at risk, from the work itself or from toxic dust, dangerous machinery and chemical dyes.

Time and again, a sentence keeps coming back to you, like this one about the young quarry workers, toiling in the sun with baskets of stones on their heads: "Children are sincere and perform the assigned job without any protest."

Pramila Bhargava was clear about "our primary taskI to withdraw the children from the work sites and get them started on the process of achieving literacy". Easy to say; dauntingly difficult to do, given that family poverty is the main reason why children are working. So: "All this meant confronting the contractors as well as convincing the children and their parents."

Success began to come - though with many setbacks - through what the author calls "community mobilisation", which turns out to have largely been a matter of stirring up the women. "The strength and courage of the women was truly amazing."

The campaign had many facets - the children couldn't go to their village schools because they were illiterate, so there had to be "back to school" courses. In some areas, there had to be residential camps. None of this was achieved without hindrance. "Vested interests in the form of labour contractors and landlords, who perceived that our project stood in the way of employing their children as cheap labour, instigated the poor parents to pull out their children from the camps."

Her solution to this was inspired by Gandhi's belief in vocational education, and she made her residential camps into places of vocational training.

This is an inspiring, humbling account of what can be done with vision backed by infinite determination. And though the book tells of a relatively small success, affecting a few thousand children in one district, it's also a handbook for others to follow, as well as a wake-up call for governments and individuals across the world.

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