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‘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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What are we teaching our kids?

There’s something I really appreciate about American culture and kids (there’s also lots I don’t, but that’s a story for another day).

First Lady Michelle Obama with children at Fort Bragg, N.C. in 2009

It is about how Amercian culture teaches kids to be independent rather early in life. For immigrants from other cultures, including India, this just does not come naturally. But most have adapted.

Specifically, you see young teenagers beginning some productive work earlier in life than what you would see elsewhere in the world. This may be with regular household chores or by being a paper boy or participating in a Boy/Girl Scout car wash during the weekend. It goes further than this. As they enter high school, kids find work during the weekends or summers. It might be about a service job in a fast food restaurant or hotel, or tutoring younger children in math, or helping coach basketball or working as interns (an outstanding concept this!) in businesses or with government organizations.

Young interns working for the National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Here are just some of the benefits that they end up receiving:

  • Opportunities to meet new and interesting people.
  • An appreciation for work, and hard work.
  • Pocket money and independence from having to ask mom or dad to support their hobbies, be it music or books or games.
  • Better social skills and the ability to communicate with adults and kids alike.
  • A keener appreciation and value for fun times or non-working hours.
  • Exploring new interests
  • Thinking about their future and what they might want to do in life, sooner rather than later.

Let me tell you what I see in India. Note: This is from my limited recent exposure. Plus I am focusing on the upper-middle to wealthy class of families here. I get the impression that these children are given everything. They are pampered. They are given a good education. They are provided extra-curricula activities. They are given the ability to socialize and entertain their friends (paid by the parents), they are given pocket money or taken shopping so they can get what they need or want. They go to the movies or restaurants or clubs or other entertainment. And, as they grow into teenagers, it only gets to be more.

School girls on a field trip outside Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai

It is rare for the child of this class of family to hear the word “No”. After all, they need to fit in with all their friends and the parents need to fit in with their peers. On the one hand, it’s nice to see the child getting all he needs and wants. But isn’t there another side to life and one’s responsibilities?

By not getting an up close and personal perspective of working life early on, look at the benefits that they miss – in their prime period of growth and learning. It would be so nice to see a transference of this aspect of life from the U.S. to India. After all, we have transferred McDonalds, KFC, Subway and the uber-consumer mindset from there to here, surely this can happen too?

So, there’s my view on one side of India that I see.  

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Moving to the poorer side of Indian society, there’s a totally different side I also see, that actually contradicts what I just said about kids not working in India. It’s the life of the child laborer in India. This is a tragic sight that is visible everywhere. It is about working due to necessity and at all costs. It’s not to supplement education. It’s instead of education. It’s often the only way for the child to have food to eat or shelter for the night.

Even though it  is theoretically “illegal” as has been declared by the government, child labor is widespread, with examples that include household help, factory labor, hard labor in construction, hawking cheap goods and begging for cash (this is a job too!).

Child laborer in domestic work, India

The statistics are startling. According to one source:

India has the largest number of children employed than any other country in the world. According to the statistics provided by The Government of India around 90 million out of 179 million children in the six to 14 age group do not go to school and are engaged in some occupation or other. This means that close to 50 per cent of children are deprived of their right to a free and happy childhood.

Unofficially, this figure exceeds 100 million but the fact that a large number of these children work without wages in fields or in cottages alongside their parents, unreported by census, makes it very difficult to estimate accurately. However, it is estimated that if these working children constituted a country, it would be the 11th largest country in the world.

This situation, quite the opposite of what I described earlier, simply makes one want to weep at the injustice of it all! But what would be the the use of that?*

There are various NGOs who are working to reduce this tragic situation, the most notable among them being CRY (Child Rights and You). Commendable accomplishments by CRY abound. As an example, in 2010-11 alone, they have impacted the lives of almost 900,000 children in over 5000 villages and slums – moving them from child labor to schools and shelter. Any progress is great progress!

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So, here I am.

I started down one path and ended up entirely somewhere else.  It leads me again and again to that same state – the yin and yang of life in India.

In a country of so many dichotomies, what’s one more?

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* If you wish to help this situation, one simple way to do this is to visit CRY and donate online.  This is what your donation (even a small one) could accomplish:

Note that I have no affiliation with CRY except as a donor (possibly a fellow donor?). Honestly speaking, this is not anywhere near what this post was supposed to be about! It literally just happened as I was writing. But I’m glad it did. 

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Photo School Girls: By Wen-Yan King (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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