To be seen and not heard

Why the lack of children’s voices in the debate about the recent Amendment to the Child Labour Act is a matter of concern

Working Children

This week witnessed a lot of debate around the Amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 (“the Act”). The amendment has brought the Act in line with the Article 21A of the Constitution and the Right to Education Act. The amendment has made changes to the age of employment for children, the kinds of employment they can be hired for and the penalties for violation of the Act. However, what is conspicuously missing from the current debate (particularly in the media) are the opinions of children, especially of working children. This is extremely worrying, as the children who are at the receiving end of this Amendment do not have a voice to set the public discourse.

The original Act and the recent Amendment both acknowledge that children can (and do) perform work that is economically productive. However, it remains doubtful that children, working or otherwise, were systematically consulted when passing the Amendment and they were more likely treated as passive agents. It would be extremely unfortunate if indeed, working children had not been involved in the framing of the Amendment or any subsequent analysis of its impact as such a law would undoubtedly have a great bearing upon the lives of these children.  Not only would it be high-handed, it would amount to an utter disregard of the ability of children to think rationally and formulate opinions on decisions that affect them. This could not be further from the truth as working children have demonstrated that they can participate effectively in public decision making and voice their opinions with courage.

India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children (UNCRC), an international treaty that sets out the civil, political, social, and economic rights of children. Article 11 of the UNCRC acknowledges that children’s relationships with adults need to move beyond children receiving protection and provision of services to also participating in decision-making in all matters that affect them. Given that India has signed the treaty, it can be assumed that the country subscribes (at least theoretically) to the view that children are not just to be seen but also to be heard.

Stakeholder analysis and involvement is commonly advocated as a tool for effective policy planning, particularly for vulnerable populations. It is only logical to first understand the needs and concerns of the target population before framing a policy that will address them. While other tools like economical analyses or scientific studies also have value, it is imperative to also seek the opinions of the people being affected. Otherwise, there is the imminent risk of providing solutions that fail to address all the concerns of the target population and may tackle a problem that the they were actually indifferent towards. Furthermore, by not being involved in the policy making process, it is quite possible that these people will not fully understand their rights and entitlements under the new policy.

The media has traditionally helped policy makers in this regard by providing a forum to spread awareness about new policies. But the media is much more than a mere mouthpiece for the government. Often described as the fourth pillar of governance after the executive, judiciary and legislature, the media can actually keep a check on all the other three. It ostensibly does this by providing enough data and analyses to the public for them to make informed opinions about government actions. Though this information does not always hold up to strict, empirical rigour, it helps create a story or a narrative about each policy. In democratic countries especially, these narratives are sources of public pressure on governments to change policies. It is impossible (and foolish) to ignore the role narratives play in ensuring accountability and moving government policies in a certain direction.

It is in light of all of this that the failure to give voice to the concerns of children becomes more stark. While the current level of information is insufficient to accurately comment on the involvement of children in framing the Amendment, what is more readily apparent is the lack of child voices in the media furor about the Amendment and its repercussions. Only isolated pockets in print media convey voices of organisations that represent and directly work with working children. If this continues, the media will be guilty of continuing to treat children as if they should be seen and not heard. Not only is this bystander status demeaning to children, it could lead to a law that is counterproductive or to a state where children are not sufficiently informed about a law that directly affects them (which the adults debating about child labour on TV or otherwise can full well exploit).

Nidhi Gupta is a Social Policy graduate from the London School of Economics and manages outreach and business development at the Takshashila Institution