Ravi Kant , Advocate Supreme Court of India & President Shakti Vahini in a CNN IBN DEBATE – FTN: Servant-employer relationship reaching breaking point?
“Imagine this: you have two children, a toddler and a teenager. Would you ever leave the younger one in the care of the older one (unsupervised by a senior) for a long period of time? Or would you leave your minor child unattended at home with gas and electrical appliances within his/her reach? In both cases, we assume, the answer would be a firm no. But when it comes to a minor domestic help, such caution is thrown to the winds, even though the act of employing a minor as a domestic is illegal. But since there is a gap between the law and its implementation (especially as long as things don’t get out of hand), child labour thrives in India, right under our benign gaze. In yet another case of such child abuse, the Delhi Police on Wednesday arrested a doctor couple, Sanjay and Sumita Verma, for locking up their minor domestic help at home and going on a holiday to Bangkok with their 11-year-old daughter. It was four days after their departure that the girl, who hails from Jharkhand, was rescued. She later told the police that the couple starved and beat her on a regular basis and confined her to the house. A case was filed against the couple under the Juvenile Justice Act, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and the Indian Penal Code.
Despite a web of strong laws, the number of child workers in the country is substantial. The 2001 census, which enumerated child labour by occupation, revealed that 1.86 lakh children below the age of 14 were engaged as domestic workers. Along with very slack implementation, even after so many years of the Child Labour (prohibition and regulation) Act, 1986, coming into being, the trend continues because not only is it cheaper to hire young children but also because there is silent societal support — or at least no strong opposition — against such hiring. This is only supported sometimes by a specious argument that the children who work as domestic help are at least better off than they would have been in their villages, where two square meals could be a luxury at times. There is hardly any logic to the argument because for a working child, a day spent as a domestic help means she goes two steps back from the constitutional rights she enjoys as a citizen and there can be no greater joy and sense of security for a child than to be with her parents.
The demand for such young workers has been rising in India and the sorry state of affairs in the rural areas has only helped in stitching a demand-supply link, which is usually serviced by unscrupulous touts who indulge in child trafficking. While the laws can help to tackle cases that come to light, there must be equal if not greater stress on tackling the root of the supply. Is this conspiratorial silence because children don’t have a voice or a vote?
“The idea that those who provide service, do so out of social inferiority rather than economic necessity, that it is their assigned station in life is responsible for the way household help is treated in India. This is a job without any job guarantees, carries no mandated benefits either by way of health coverage or pension and no mechanism to ensure a reasonable code of behaviour on part of the employer. Even the most liberal minded individuals balk at making the relationship with their domestic staff a transparent and fair one, preferring to take refuge in a paternalistic and highly discretionary relationship where one confers benefits in a selective and feudal manner. The unstated class divide is etched in hard lines-‘they’ must not be given too much attention and most certainly no enforceable rights, for otherwise they will get above themselves and take advantage of ‘us’, is the feeling. Instead, a common currency of grievances consisting of real and imagined stories of criminality, unpredictability, ingratitude and callousness is generated and re-circulated in a way that the employers begin to see themselves as the victims, being forced to pay ever increasing sums of money bordering on extortion to this undeserving section of society. There is little recognition that this is a commercial transaction and one that must make sense to both sides; the unequal power equation that has always existed has made us blind to the fact that serving us is not the natural condition of the people in question. Stories of horrific abuse that domestic help, often defenceless and vulnerable children, suffer in India are a natural consequence of this attitude.”