‘The Help’ in India and the Heartache of Child Labor

Movies and More Movies

My transcontinental flights, which seem to happen too often, are great for catching up on movies. This trip, if you can believe it, I saw all of these movies; in parenthesis is a quick comment, either the highlight for me or what I liked best about each:

        • The Descendents (George Clooney…of course :-) )
        • Moneyball (eternally loved story of the triumph of the underdog. Uh…and Brad Pitt)
        • The Artist (now that’s what I call true innovation!)
        • My Week With Marilyn (an intriguing peek into the sad life of a legend)
        • Iron Lady (Meryl Streep=Margaret Thatcher, totally interchangeable, wow!)
        • The Ides of March (political intrigue and drama)
        • Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (Now I know why everyone is reading Stieg Larsson!)

Since it was just past Oscar season, I lucked out and did not end up seeing a single bad one. And in one fell swoop, just like that, I got caught up on months worth of movies. It was time well spent.

The Help

One movie that I wanted to catch but wasn’t showing was The Help. You might have heard about it.

It is set in a small Southern town and portrays a family, their lives and their domestic help. According to IMDB, it’s about an aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s who decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

Given that I am from a small Southern town in the US, I could have related well to that.

A friend in India who had seen it said – “You know, it might be shocking for people in the US to see what the attitudes were of white people towards domestic help in those bad old days“. Then he added, But it’s how we treat our help in India (if not much worse)  – even today!  An insightful comment and something (sad) to think about, isn’t it?

The Help in India

Related to this, last week’s NY Times had a couple of feature articles on the recent scandal involving a Delhi couple and their alleged cruelty to their underage domestic help. When I read it, frankly, it sounded like some fictional horror story – a bit over the top on the cruelty angle (which is probably why the Times picked it up).  The couple in question has denied the charges.  Whatever evolves, it has brought the topic of servants in India to the forefront (temporarily, I am sure).

Since I was in the US at the time the story broke, I am not sure how much coverage it received in Indian media.

All of this made me think about the whole issue of living in India and servants (“domestic help” sounds so much better). One of the luxuries that I can afford and allow myself while living here is that of having domestic help to take care of all the mundane household chores every day – things that we tend to manage by ourselves in the US or use much more sparingly.

It is an advantage for me (but not them!) that the going market rate for hiring such help in Bombay is ridiculously low. And as I had written before, the service industry here is alive, well and thriving. You have some work, any work, that needs to be done? There is always someone out there who is willing and able to do the job for you.

The Seriously Young Help

But a very real issue at hand related to such help is that of child labor. India has a pathetic record – according to the same NY Times article, there are 12.6 million child laborers between 5 and 14 in this country, and about 20% of them are domestic help. I am sure all these official numbers hide a much larger, sadder real metric.

But in a country beset by poverty as this one is, how do you stop anyone from working when they have to do so just to feed themselves? You see children as pan handlers on the roads of any city, you can spot them on construction sites and of course, they are still used as domestic help. Children who should be in school getting an education are working, just so they can put something in their tummies. It’s a harrowing situation.

When someone employs them, they are technically breaking the law. But sometimes it’s hard to figure out what that really means in India. Further, is this abuse and exploitation? Or are they actually giving them a break and a way to beat their hunger?

It’s easy to criticize – but hard to find solutions that work. The government is working on finding them, several NGOs are working on them and so are international organizations – every bit helps!

Some of the information that I have found on this subject was eye-opening.  For instance:

      • 90% of the child labor in India is in rural and farm communities
      • There is an extremely widespread disparity of child labor at a state to state level
      • Kerala – the most literate state has the least percentage of child labor at 0.1% of the total in India
      • The highest number of child laborers, by far, can be found in the state of Uttar Pradesh (literacy rate: 69% and 22.9% of child labor in India is from this state!)
      • Illiterate families who are struggling to survive use their children as an alternate source of income.

The Laws and More – Are They Helping?

While the general trend of child labor is declining (thank goodness!), there is so much more that should be done. There are already numerous laws that are aimed at curbing and stopping child labor.  The underlying solution is not merely about making it illegal for children to work but making education compulsory and accessible. There is an unmistakable correlation between literacy and child labor.  

Even beyond that, a key factor that will make a difference is the general economic growth of the country. But in the meantime, ensuring that  food available to every citizen will go a long way to keeping children out of the workforce and in schools where they belong. The government has been discussing the new Food Security Bill for some time now.  Here is its promising mission:

Come on guys, make it a reality already!

While the problem can seem insurmountable when you consider the sheer scope of child labor today, at the same time, it helps to remember that this situation (as so many others in India) is a “work in progress“.  

As appalling as this issue is, when one is living in India, it’s so easy to become numb to the situation on the ground. Then, every so often you can get hit by it, such as when you see a sensational media story like the one on the Delhi couple. It can shake you up and make you wonder about the tragedy of it all, forcing you to dig into the issue to learn more about it, like I did.

Once you do, it makes you feel totally helpless, searching for light at the end of the tunnel. Not to mention, it’s a wake up call, making virtually any problems that you might personally be facing seem frivolous and trivial in comparison.

Calling Bollywood To Help

Back to the movies…

Bollywood did release a jewel of a movie on the topic of child labor last year. It was called Stanley Ka Dabba and if you have not seen it, what are you waiting for?

It showed the real life experiences of underage help in this country…and helped spread the word to its niche audience about the everyday tragedies and serious socio-cultural issues that are commonplace even to this day.

In this Bollywood-crazy country, something that appeals to an even broader audience might serve as a kind of wake up call for more people to become more aware of this tragic and widespread problem. I guess that means it needs to have a star Khan in the cast, and there’s only one of them that comes close to fitting the bill for something like this.  What do you say? You think there’ll be any takers?  How about it, Aamir?  :-)

And then (let me dream), some small fraction of that audience could actually decide to do something about this agonizing issue. It could be something as simple as pushing the government to act, or spreading the word, or working with NGOs to help.

One small step at a time would help too if there are enough people taking them.  


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Photo credits

Child labor in India: By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted on April 13, 2012, in india, people, service industry, youth and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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