Monday, August 07, 2006

Why the ban was necessary - 2

Sister Leona of the Domestic Workers' Forum is also a lawyer. She keeps a notebook which is covered with inky squiggles detailing cases of maidservants who were raped, beaten, otherwise abused, or placed in a situation from which they had to be rescued. "We survey the field and have a team of animators. They check for non-payment of dues and exploitation reports. If they're beaten or not paid, with the help of the police, we rescue the girls. If they want to continue working, we get them registered and placed properly in a safe home. We also meet each Sunday after mass and give them a chance to tell us if there are problems. Have also started self-help groups amongst the girls in rural areas to give them an option to not migrate. Also training them in marketing and other skills. Teach them to read and write and give them other non-formal education. At least 100 distress cases each year in Delhi. In June alone, we rescued 15 girls approximately. At least 3-4 turn out to be rape cases." 

She starts flipping through the notebook, talking all the while. "Once, we investigated the case of a mother and child. The mother came looking for her son, and was placed in a home herself and her daughter was placed elsewhere, against her wishes. The mother was trapped. She couldn't leave the household and the agent was nowhere to be found. Coincidentally, he happened to get arrested in a rape case elsewhere and the agency was closed down. The agent is in jail now. But there are many hundreds of placement agents. They have to be registered, but many aren't. Also, they often use saints' names and put religious pictures on the walls to help create the false impression of piousness and security. Many of the girls are tribal Christians and they get taken in. Often, it is the placement agent who first rapes the girl." 

She flips a few more pages. "In May-June, there was the case of Akash placement agency. The agent had raped two of the three minor girls he brought down. The case is in Rohini court." 

Another page flipped. "In Jaipur, there was a government official's son, accused of rape. They've been threatening me, asking me to withdraw the case, wanting to reach a 'compromise'. We refused, because the girl also wanted to see him punished. She was raped 4 times and when she got pregnant, forced to undergo an abortion. She was kept locked up inside the house." 

A few pages later, "Another 14-year-old was raped in Lal Quarter." 

The page turned. "And one 17-year-old was killed. They said she got burnt by accident or committed suicide, but when we went there, we saw that only her lower half of the body was burnt. Her hair was not even singed, which would not have happened if she's burnt herself. We suspect she was raped and murdered, and burnt, to cover up the evidence. It was a rich family... we didn't get police support so couldn't get enough evidence together." And turned again. "An 18-year-old was kicked around badly by her employer. He was an army officer." 

And again. "One 12-year-old was locked up by her employers in Lajpatnagar. When we went to rescue her, they claimed she wasn't in the house. Wouldn't let us come in. We stuck around, sat on the stairs outside, and kept saying that we just wanting to meet the girl. Somehow, we managed to persude them to let us step inside. Then we said, we're taking her away. The employers said that if she was leaving, she had to leave all her old clothes and even a battered old suitcase, which had been given to her. They even refused to give her a glass of water before she left, and refused to pay her. They sent her off without one rupee." 

A 12-year-old. Taking away old hand-me-downs. People who own kothis in Lajpatnagar.


harry said...
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suresh said...


All that you say is well taken. However, I am cynical enough to think that in the absence of a commitment to enforce the law properly - something you also observe in your blog - this will end up as meaningless as some of our other laws. Take for instance, the law banning child marriages which dates back to British India, as far back as 1929. Or for that matter, the law banning untouchability. Or many others.

Laws are important, but as the economist Kaushik Basu pointed out a long time back, we can all agree to ignore a law, in which case it becomes meaningless. We have a law in Delhi forbidding smoking in public buses and many public places. All buses carry such a notification. Yet, in many cases, smoking goes on and the conductor is often the person doing the smoking! I think that a law is most effective when there is already a substantial consensus in society and the law just legitimizes that consensus. In the case of child labour, our middle class and upper middle classes seem mostly impervious to the fact that is morally wrong. Many people - including at well-known "left" places like Jawaharlal Nehru University - employ child labour, often justifying the practice by dubious arguments.

It is because of the absence of a moral consensus amongst our middle and upper middle classes that I remain sceptical that the law will actually have much effect. Perhaps we need someone like Charles Dickens whose works, I think, were instrumental in building the moral consensus in 19th century England. At the very least, I think, we need much more and broader public discussion before important laws are passed. The remarkable thing about Indian law making - unlike Western countries - is the very elitist nature of the whole process, with little or no public discussion.

I would be happy to be proved wrong. About the best thing that can be said for the law is that it is a start. Perhaps in some cases the law can be used to help children. One can make the argument that even if the law ends up benefiting just a few children, it would be worth it. But I hope that the law does not end like the Sarda bill where 75 years after the law, we still have child marriages.

Mechanism8 said...

umm...what she said.

Annie Zaidi said...

suresh: point taken too. I (and all of us are, in their own way) am in the business of concensus/opinion-building. cynicism gets us nowhere.
manny: what i said. :)

Swapna said...

Annie, well-said. It's really sad but I agree with Suresh in that I'm not sure how effective this law is going to be. It is a step in the right direction and I'm glad of that.

Erimentha said...

Suresh, as a law-person, I must protest. Laws are not only regulations by which we seek to control each others' behaviour; at some level, they are also an articulation of our collective values as a society. While I agree that the law itself doesn't change anything, it empowers us to change things - it puts state power behind attempts to enforce the collective value it articulates!

suresh said...


If our laws are really an articulation of our collective values, why is it that many of our well-meaning laws - some of which I mentioned - are so badly dysfunctional? Why do child marriages persist in quite significant numbers when the relevant law goes back to 1929? Why is it that untouchability still persists when it was abolished in our constitution? Could it be that these laws in fact do not represent our collective values? Presumably, state power is also there to enforce these laws.

A law is only as good as its actual implementation. I do not buy the "law is good, but implementation bad" argument. I have seen the same sort of argument used with regard to our "five year plans"; needless to say, a plan which cannot be implemented is no plan at all.

We live in a strange country where, as I said, important laws are passed with little or no public discussion and consensus building. Without consensus building, I find it difficult to believe that the child labour law is really an "articulation of our collective values." It is more accurately, an articulation of the values of a small elite, the group to which you and I and everyone else reading this blog belongs. Elites are important in that they give directions for our society to follow but without reaching out to the remainder of our society - those not speaking English, those not on the internet, and those who quite blatantly and shamelessly employ child labour - I do not see how we are going to end this scourge of child labour, notwithstanding this law.

As I said, I would be happy to be mistaken.

suresh said...

I don't like following up my own post - more so as this thread seems to have come to an end - but in case anyone is still following this discussion, here is a link to a Financial Express article outlining the type of "consensus building" that can make a difference:

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