Home > opinion > columns > The middle class doesn’t care

If someone is really attentive to how India lives, it’s impossible to overlook child workers. They slog in city restaurants, push carts too heavy for them in local markets, sell knick-knacks at traffic lights in heat, dust and cold or work as domestic help doing far more than their little bodies and traumatized minds can handle.

What appears unjust is only one part of this miserable story. There is the burden of poor health. Bronchial asthma, allergies, lung and eye infections are common, even among those with access to privileged health care in cities such as Delhi. But for those on the streets who battle lack of food, nutrition and shelter, the same pollution works as a grotesque enemy.

When the victim of these sordid circumstances is an impoverished child exposed to frequent illnesses—wracking coughs, fevers and immunity-destroying illnesses such as typhoid and jaundice—who must also work to earn a livelihood, the problem is socially toxic.

I regularly chat with 10-year-old Karan in our neighbourhood. The son of a dhobi couple, he starts his day by cleaning cars, then walks a couple of pet dogs before setting out to collect clothes from individual homes for ironing. Now that he has grown a bit taller, his father expects him to iron some clothes, too.

Karan’s work isn’t typically hazardous, but he is often sick. His father refuses to engage in a conversation about Karan’s persistent cough and curtly dismisses me. Sadly, I do exactly that, shrug and leave it.

Concern mixed with shrugging off responsibility makes me even more culpable. I realize I am among the great Indian middle class which really doesn’t care. When I see a yellow-faced, hungry little child pushing a vegetable cart or a tiny girl with grubby hands and dried tears running across traffic to sell an unwanted item to “shrugging" owners of plush cars, I revert to what you may term desperate acts. Like reading on economics and poverty.

This week, I find myself neck deep in this issue. Provoked by a recent report in The Times of India on The lost childhood of India’s mica minors, I dug more to find a sombre Hindustan Times story from last year titled Jharkhand’s child labourers toil to make lipsticks sparkle. These little children, even as young as four years old, work with blistered hands to collect mica in the dark, dungeon-like mines of Bihar and Jharkhand. The glittering mica is used by top cosmetic brands to add sparkle to the lipsticks and eye shadows. They suffer from head and body injuries and cuts, tuberculosis, silicosis as well as frequent heat strokes and long spells of dehydration.

Despite the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of India, which bans employment of children under 14 years of age in 18 hazardous industries, quite a few industries, from carpet weaving to glass and firecrackers, still employ little children illegally.

What does the middle class do?

Blame it either on the government or just duck down and let the problem rage and burn. Some take the easiest short cut and donate money to health work non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Ho-hum.

I am trying (like a losing champion) to heave out from the dark mine of my own hypocrisy. More than anything else, reading helps me tune my anger (at the system, the government, God, whoever) as well as trigger “response-ability". I have been reading again about the work of Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the NGO working along with American cosmetic giant Estee Lauder to save children from the mica mines of Jharkhand and Bihar.

Estee Lauder’s role is crucial, given that mica finds its way to cosmetics. I also explored South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang’s book Kicking Away the Ladder and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape. While Chang’s book argues how developed countries kick the ladder on which they have climbed to the top, the simile is not lost when applied to people like us.

Deaton’s book The Great Escape is for a different motivation. The winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics, Deaton analyses patterns behind the health and wealth of nations. He describes medical milestones and serious setbacks: the successes of antibiotics, pest control, vaccinations and clean water on the one hand and disastrous famines and the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the other. The book shifts between economic progress and inequality and helped me understand why the burden of bad health spells doom for a poor country.

If poor children are perennially sick or malnourished, how can we expect to breathe easy—ladder to the top or not? An estimation by Kirk Smith of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) says that smoke from an Indian cooking fire has toxicity the equivalent of smoking 400 cigarettes per hour (not per day). Roughly, 780 million Indian villagers depend on dung, stones, wood and other biomass for cooking. The World Health Organization estimates that this kills 1.2 million Indians per year.

Chang or Deaton, Satyarthi or some other way to provoke informed anger, there has to be a way to kick, not the ladder, but complacency. Even if each one pledges to save one underprivileged child from a life-draining disease due to poverty or circumstance, every fragment of anger will have translated to action.

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