“The Labouring Childhood: Trends, Bottlenecks & Opportunities to End It”, A Caritas India Study on Child Labour in West Bengal, unveiled at Kolkata

December 11, witnessed another milestone in Caritas India’s service to the children in West Bengal. Caritas India together with the All Bengal Collaborators for Development (ABCD) Forum released its Research study on Child Labour in West Bengal, “The Labouring Childhood: Trends, Bottlenecks & Opportunities to End It”. The event was graced by the Msgr. Rev. Dominic Gomes, Vicar General of Archdiocese of Calcutta, and Mr. S. Suresh Kumar IAS, Principal Secretary, Labour Department, Government of WB, among other dignitaries.

“Children are meant to learn and not to earn,” exhorted Fr. Paul Moonjely, Executive Director of Caritas India, in his opening address. Stating the connect also between states like Kerala as a destination and West Bengal as the source for child labour, he stated a sense of urgency in protecting the children whose childhood is being lost to labour.  Caritas India is committed to create safe environment for children, he pronounced emphatically, while recognizing the Government’s sensitivity to the issue, and thanking the Government for supporting Caritas India since long.

In his inaugural address, Msgr Dominic Gomes, reaffirmed the Church’s view on Child Labour. While taking through the alarming statistics on child labour, and other development indices, in West Bengal, he quoted Pope Francis’ appeal to the international community to extend social protection to children to eradicate this scourge of child exploitation. “Child labour, in its intolerable forms, constitutes a kind of violence that is less obvious than others but by no means any less terrible”, he expressed. Realising that child labour was the grotesque manifestation of multifaceted deprivations, he appealed to the audience and officials to work on its root causes. Child labour is both a cause and effect of adult unemployment. He stressed upon the criticality of just, equitable and non-biased enforcement of existing laws, and placed his confidence in collaborative Government and NGO actions for combating this social evil.

Congratulating Caritas India for the research study, Mr. S. Suresh Kumar, stressed on the need for evidence-based approach to understand the overall milieu holistically to design programmatic interventions. While lamenting the magnitude, forms and intensity of child labour in the state, he proposed cooperation from the NGOs present to conduct a mapping of out-of-school children, who invariably get into child labour, and develop strategy for prevention and protection. He also spelled out the aspirations of the department in tacking the issue, viz., having the issue tacked at the State itself, including conjoined issues of bonded labour and trafficking of children for labour. He went on to recognise the need for convergence with NGOs. Some steps towards the latter have been initiated, apprised Mr. Kumar. Trickling down of policy measures and enforcement of laws though face dynamic challenges, he underlined the seriousness and commitment of the State Government in addressing the issue of child labour.

The panels discussions received views from NGOs and Government, both, whereby the members in the audience posed critical questions and reflections to the member of the West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Mr. Prasun Bhowmick. Responding to various queries, Mr. Bhowmick informed that the appointments of the members of Child Welfare Committees (CWC) were through and CWC would soon be functional across districts, presently active in 3 of 23 districts. He also went on to read child labour as child labour, where the tender age of children get exploited and agreed that women-headed households, which were significantly high in number for child labourers, as revealed by the Study report, needed to be prioritized for livelihood support programmes, and children for technical skilling programmes

Sr. Subeshna Thapa, Director, Bal Suraksha Abhiyan (BSA), shared the successes of children rehabilitated by BSA with meaningful career opportunities. BSA has groomed and enabled a state level taekwondo and hockey player, and graduates and post graduates. She submitted that there can be no distinction as hazardous or non-hazardous occupations, as all and any form of child labour always affects children’s right to normal childhood in multiple adverse ways. Therefore, scrapping such distinctions and extending protection and education to all children up to 18 years of age as committed under the UNCRC was needed to achieve the Government of India’s vision of Child Labour Free Nation by 2025. Caritas India together with BSA is implementing the child rights programme in North Bengal’s Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts since 2013, focusing prevention and protection of children from various rights violations. 

Other panelists, namely, Ms. Rahima Khatoon, Director, Nari-O-Shishu Kalyan Kendra & Member, Juvenile Justice Board, Howrah; Mr. Satya Gopal Dey, Head – Child Protection and Advocacy, Vikramshila Education Resource Society; Mr. Marine Chatterjee, Assistant Director-Programmes, Child in Need Institute (CINI); and Mr. Prabir Basu, Secretary, SPAN-Society for People’s Awareness, flagged concerns and issues relating to ground challenges and NGO Coordination; declining budgetary allocations; need for lifecycle approach to counter malnutrition among ‘at risk children’; challenges in procuring identification documents to claim entitlements by children; and initiatives for declaring tea gardens as child labor free and so on.

The consultation concluded with a proposition by Caritas India to gather consensus to initiate and lead the network of CSOs against child labour in the State together with SPAN and other NGOs. Ms Lee Macqueen, Manager-Advocacy & Child Rights, reaffirmed the willingness of Caritas India to dialogue and engage with different actors to pursue the issue with duty bearers. Ms. Asha Ekka, Zone Manager-East, presented the action statements. Participants included members of several NGO and UNICEF representatives. This was the second consultation organised by Caritas India on child labour this year, following the state level consultation earlier in February, to develop actions to end child labour in West Bengal, with Government and NGOs.

The Study report can be downloaded from the from the link. The Labouring Childhood