This has never been done in the history of prime time television! Good Morning aam aadmi and welcome to our show. How does it feel to be here in our studio with us?
Thank you. It is nice to sit in a sofa. I never sat in one except for that one time when I went to an A.C. movie theater. I feel a little chilly because of the A.C. Otherwise it is nice and comfortable. I also had some breakfast and hot tea after a very long time, so it is a welcome change.
I normally would have increased the temperature to make you feel more comfortable but I am wearing a Ralph Lauren suit and I tend to feel a little suffocated if it is above 18 degrees Celsius, so please bear with me.
No problem, it is much better than my leaking hut in this monsoon weather anyways.
You have been invited today because one of our junior correspondents overheard you speaking against the ban on child labor in a dingy tea shop in the country side. We thought it would be interesting to listen to your point of view. But before that, tell us about your childhood.
When I was 12 years old, my father died and my mother abandoned me and my elder brother. I started as an apprentice in a mechanical workshop with the help of my uncle where I was learning to operate the lathe machine. But soon, the govt. banned child labor and I was fired. I started working in a dhaba on the highway cleaning utensils and when I was sixteen, owner of the restaurant found someone else younger than me willing to work for 50 rupees less. So he kicked me out and I was on the street yet again. Then I tried selling small things on the street as a vendor but that did not work out. So I got married to a woman from a nearby slum and then life got better. Whenever my wife gets pregnant, my mother-in-law lets me stay at her place.
So, I always try to make my wife pregnant! You started out as an apprentice in a workshop as a child laborer. How was your experience there?
Before the strict enforcement of child labor laws, all poor children like me used to work as apprentices in the manufacturing sector. My uncle started as an apprentice when he was 12 and by the time he was 18, he knew how to operate most machines. He also learned to read machine drawings. That experience helped him get a job as skilled labor in a big factory. He now lives quite comfortably. I wanted to be like him but I could not because factories stopped hiring children.
After being rescued from child labor, how did your life change?
It is funny the way you used the words "rescued from child labor". I wouldn’t call it rescue; I was thrown out of it. Suddenly, I was on the street with nothing to eat and no place to live. As part of rehabilitation, I was asked to attend a govt. school in which teachers rarely showed up for work!
Are you saying that a ban on child labor actually worked against you?
Yes, in a way. The ban on child labor actually took away the opportunity for people like me to learn a trade that will fetch me a respectful and skilled job. Most of us ended up working in far worse conditions working in small hotels and other businesses in the unorganized sector where the ban is not enforced strictly. I was cleaning utensils all my teens and now I do not have any skill that can get me a decent job! There are thousands like me, who’d prefer working in a factory over a dhaba!
But child labor is wrong! How can you justify it?
I am not saying child labor is good or desirable. The bottom line is that we have no other option but work. Once we're honest about that, working as an apprentice learning some trade is better in the long run than working in dhabas doing menial chores where exploitation is just as bad. Children should not work in dangerous conditions like in the fireworks or carpet industries. But when the government decided to ban child labor, it did so without any plan for rehabilitation of the affected children!
Did you ever consider education as an option to get out of poverty?
Yes, I went to school as a kid for 2 or 3 years but it was mostly for the free midday meals. When I was 11 years old, both my brother and me dropped out of school.
Why did you drop out of school?
My brother went to school for eight years. At 14 years of age, he was being taught math, geography, economics and civics etc. They may be interesting and essential to get further in school but govt. school teachers and trigonometry are unbearable on an empty stomach. Algebra and Indus valley did not seem very relevant when there is a family to support!
But don't you realize that poverty is a long term problem and it will only get worse by dropping out of school?
That is the popular perception. Poverty might look like lack of education, lack of skill, lack of awareness, lack of opportunities and hence lack of ability to make a decent living. It may be a long term condition but the consequences are immediate. Poverty is having nothing to eat for dinner. Poverty means having no medicine for your sick mother. Poverty means getting trashed by an alcoholic father. Poverty is not “a problem” to be solved; it is a constant battle for survival! Traditional school education does not fit into the scheme of things!
Education ensures stability and job security. Everyone from the UNO to the local NGOs agree that education is the only way out of poverty. You can’t deny that!
Did any of the organizations that endorse education explain what kind of education will take me out of poverty? They never mention that part of it do they? There is a government school in my neighborhood but the teacher barely shows up for work. Even if I manage to put myself through school, what am I supposed to do with a high school degree?
But education does not have to stop with high school. In fact...
Are you suggesting college? May I ask which college? Did you mean the elite govt. colleges that admit only the top 3 – 5%? Or the private universities that are way out of our reach? Were you suggesting rural govt. colleges where degrees have no value and graduates have no prospects! The whole “education is the only solution to poverty” sounds great as a concept but who is going to feed me while I attend college? There are now organizations that give IIT-JEE coaching to kids who have nothing to eat. I don’t understand that. We do not need IIT degrees. We need food, drinking water and other basic things!
The govt. is trying to promote education among the poor and there have been reports suggesting that the poor are not eager to send their children to school.Why is education not appealing?
The govt. does not have a policy to make education appealing to people like us. Like I said earlier, poverty is a bunch of immediate problems that require immediate attention and quick fixes. If education cannot provide them, then it will not be appealing. Schemes like midday meals and Right to Education act are all soft, sweet, cosmetic measures that at best impresses the media and a few urban well-to-do people whose only exposure to rural India is through the tinted glass window of an AC train compartment! You cannot attract students with free midday meals and expect them to stay motivated till they complete college! May be schools should have a supplementary curriculum to teach vocational skills which will give us an ability to earn a meal or two on our own. There should be some sort of a positive reinforcement for us to believe that education is indeed rewarding.
Are you suggesting that the poor should have different schools?
The poor already have "different schools". They are called govt. schools. The rich and middle class children don't study there!
Coming back to child labor, do you support legalizing it at least in some sectors?
Banning something like child labor is easy. It is just curing the symptom, the disease being poverty. Fighting the disease needs a lot of planning and a series of well executed processes. No govt. is serious about implementing anything more complex than a mid-day meal scheme in high schools which is useless because with high school education, you cannot get anything done today. The ban on child labor forces us with only one option out of poverty: to go and complete college, which is out of the world given our economic status!
What do you think are the steps that need to be taken to solve this problem?
I am illiterate and I live in a slum! Are you asking me to suggest public policy? I am only here to tell you what is happening. Statistics might say that I am unemployed, but reality is I am unemployable. I am not alone, there is a whole generation of unemployable youth like me – no skill, no prospects, no future; angry, frustrated and a volatile potential for crime and violence. The media is not even aware of our existence! We are the result of half-baked politically correct public policy and sooner or later, you have to deal with us!
Thank you Mango Man, let us conclude the first part of this interview here. A lot of interesting questions were raised. I am sure more such things will come up in the next part of the interview. Until then, we sign off with this audience poll.
What is your opinion on aam aadmi’s line of argument against the ban on child labor? A. Sahi tho keh raha hai B. Ullu bana raha hai
Don’t SMS the answer, just leave it in the comments section below :)