It gets irritating, especially when he wakes you up from a sound nap, or when you were right in the middle of that perfect sentence and there’s this child, demanding your attention. You just want to shout at him to go away. But he has big, hopeful eyes and a rare smile that lights up his whole face when he chooses to use it. And I can’t help thinking how many people must have already shouted at this kid, destroyed some hope or another and how many more he will have to face and let me not add to that list.
But the problem is, I have no errands for the boy to run. I manage to pick up groceries the night before (once in a rare while, I might ask him to get me some milk, but not enough to warrant the daily doorbell ringing), I have everything I need: a maid who cleans and cooks and a guy to clean my car. Also, I want to be politically correct about this — I want him to go to school and do normal childhood things (what do they do these days? Cricket?) rather than worry about money and what little tips he can earn from this door-to-door soliciting. In my building, it is only us and one more flat downstairs that don’t have full-time help and we don’t have anything for him to do. He is not a beggar, I can’t just hand him money and be done with it, but at the same time, I don’t feel right sending a child out to do my work for me.
I wish I could say the same about the local shop, that periodically uses a young boy (about 12) to cycle around the neighbourhood dropping off groceries. Or even the employers of my little kid’s mother, who use him in a pinch when they need to. Sometimes I’ll go to a fancy mall and there’ll be this kid — obviously not one of the family by the way she’s dressed and behaved — looking after another kid. Sometimes I’ll be surprised by a child when I go to a friend’s house and a young person brings me a glass of water.
I was thinking about this kid and the others in the same state as him while reading the recent news about India’s child labour laws. The boy in my building goes to school, but often he’s rung my bell during school hours — hiding from his mother —so that he can earn a little extra. What can I tell him? No, go to school, you’ll earn some more money when you’re grown? What is the point of future money when the present is so urgent and pressing? At the same time, I’m fully in agreement with the fact that kids should be kids: get an education, play, frolic, be kids for as long as they can, because adulthood and all its pressures will knock on their door sooner or later. But how do you argue with cold hard cash available right in front of you? I suspect the issue is knottier than what we can see on the surface.
Domestic help is the biggest employer of child labour in big cities, as far as I can tell. Little children sent from their villages to big cities, where they live alongside other more fortunate children and learn to work in a home. Their impoverished parents are happy to have one less mouth to feed and one more earning member for their family. Tell them about school and they’d likely tell you that they can’t afford it. In a country where every mouth is a liability, you want your liabilities to be off your plate and earning you money as fast as they can manage it.
The only way we can fix this is by going to the root of the problem. Help the people with the children so that their children don’t have to. And I suspect this will take more than just an amendment of a law.
(A version of this appeared as my column in mydigitalfc.com)