Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Indian Dream"

In 1931 when James Truslow Adams first used the term "American Dream" in his book "The Epic Of America" he was not only referring to a life of "motor cars and high wages" but to "a dream of social order" where in everyone would be able to "attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." America presented itself to the world as a place where such a dream could be realized. Its shores opened up to receive the millions of immigrants who saw great promise in their future away from all the constrains of their home country. Within its shores more specifically the African-American population and women chased the dream with equal fervor to break from shackles society had imposed on them.
Most Indians have long learned not to dream and accept the confines of society's expectations of them. A cobbler remained a cobbler, a farmer a farmer and a maid servant a maid servant. Quite like the caste system people's occupations also stayed steady through the generations. Dreams were reserved for those privileged enough to be born into an upper caste or the economically determined middle and upper class families.
But things are changing, Indians are dreaming and dreaming big! A parent's educational shortcomings or their menial labor occupation is no longer a deterrent to their children. Scores of youth leave their rural dwellings in search of an education and jobs that command both a decent salary and respect. Rural to urban migration has burgeoned so much so that it has put into question the sustainability of the cites that attract the immigrants. Even city dwellers are dreaming big, educating themselves, securing higher paying jobs, buying homes and cars. Owning a vehicle or a cell phone is no longer just an aspiration but a given in the scheme of the new Indian's livelihood. More Indians have been on an airplane than ever before and many more demand and travel in first class train coaches.
While medical and dental schools are often too competitive or expensive to join, there is a whole slew of new and alternative professions that are not just attractive but also offering competitive salaries. As cities expand and grow to accommodate its growing population and their demands, the service industry, transportation, city administration, civic services, allied health care, education and many other sectors are providing the new jobs.
In a much smaller role there is yet another nontraditional dreammaker; television. Dreams of stardom and recognition have never been this close to realization as kids and adults have been plucked from obscurity to appear before millions on Reality TV. Reality TV has become a broadcasting phenomenon for Indian television pulling in some of the highest ratings even with its questionable critical credibility. The numerous shows have churned out stars and discovered talent that would have otherwise found no way out into an industry that historically belonged to the Khans, Bacchans and Kapoors of Bollywood royalty. This has also created a new crop of aspirants with more defined goals from the huge pool of viewers.
All the successes are bound to eventually turn the social order topsy-turvy, wherein one's background or caste is no longer any determinant in their future. The opportunities and possibilities have created a great sense of optimism among India's youth. We all feel like we are going somewhere, upward and forward!
So what is the "Indian Dream"? Does the "American Dream" as Truslow described it translate for India too. I believe that it only partially relates but just as much as it relates to what the "American Dream" has become. Maybe Truslow's vision is a bit too Utopian for any country. As India becomes a society dedicated to capitalism the dream will and is becoming more of a quest for money than one for an ideal social order. But at the same time the "circumstance of birth and position" means a lot less in that quest than ever before. While most free themselves from the crushing poverty, it is up to the more privileged and the governments to work towards erasing the invisible and irrational boundaries that separate us .
"The Indian dream" in its truest form should be the opportunity for every Indian to be able to attain the fullest stature of what he is capable of without the constraints imposed by class, caste or sex.

Imagine if we could not dream, now imagine all those millions who are dreaming for the first time.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Imran Khan makes a run (and a video)

Pakistan police placed leading opposition figure and former national cricket captain Imran Khan under house arrest early on Sunday Nov 4th, 2007. The detention was a part of sweeping arrests made hours after President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule citing militancy and a hostile judiciary.

Imran Khan is a popular political figure in part due to his legendary cricket past. He captained his country's team to victory in the 1992 World Cup. He now heads the Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party and is at the forefront in the effort to return the country to a democracy.

He was detained along with eight supporters at his house. But Imran made a successful escape just hours after his detention. He then released a video recording from an undisclosed location. Vowing to continue his movement to dislodge Musharraf he also called upon the West to support the people of Pakistan rather than one man- a dictator.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Underage Breadwinners - Child Labor in India

(Source:National Geographic)

The Indian government-affiliated V.V. Giri Labour Institute estimates there are 12.5 million children younger than 14 working in India. UNICEF puts the figure at somewhere between 75 and 90 million. Why are so many of our children working?

It is obvious most children are working under some form of compulsion. The compulsion is most often related to economic necessity or expectations attached to their caste.

But the important aspect of child labor is to understand that without a market for it, it would not exist. The carpet and rug industry is known to be the major employer of children. Their employment tactic is based on the fallacy that children's fingers are more nimble and adept at making the fine furnishings. Other industries and households employ children for the ease with which they can be trained, admonished and controlled.

Every day parents introduce their children to the labor market where they are readily absorbed and recruited. In a recent news report the UK daily "The Observer" exposed to the world a sweatshop in south Delhi contracted by the global retailer "Gap". Children rescued from the shop told reporters of how they were aggressively recruited and ill-treated. One child described how his parents succumbed to the lure of higher returns from a working child; "The men came looking for us in July. They had loudspeakers in the back of a car and told my parents that, if they sent me to work in the city, they won't have to work in the farms. My father was paid a fee for me, and I was brought down with 40 other children."

With the kind of poverty seen in India, parents are often left with the heart wrenching choice of starving, loosing their dwellings or having their children work. The employers send paychecks to the parents and the children most often work for food and shelter. The economic necessity is far too great a defence of their action for them to see much wrong in it. Besides in a caste ridden country where lower castes are expected to live a life of labor and in a society that has traditionally employed children, child labor is not a clear wrongdoing.

The worst form of child labor that is unfortunately the most rampant is "bonded" child labor. The children work like slaves and the debt that binds them to their employer is incurred not by the children themselves, but by their relatives or guardians, usually a parent. Children work several hours without food or drink. They are given corporal punishment when they need to be disciplined and live in deplorable conditions.

India does not have an outright ban on child labor, Indian law only prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 in occupations deemed hazardous. The list was recently expanded to includes domestic, hotel and restaurant work. When the government first moved to ban child labor, employers and even some children's rights activists pointed out that millions of children worked in order to survive. Out of work they would have no one to feed them and no where to go with the absence of facilities to absorb them. Some even conceded that at least some employers treated their child-workers better than their own parents could.

Unfortunately "this notion of benevolence often masks the exploitation and the long-term harm for children" as Shantha Sinha, an anti-child labor activist and 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient rightly points out. It is true that the government has done little to provide for the rehabilitation of the children or alternatives for income the children bring in that parents heavily depend on.

But legislation is a necessary starting point that will lead to a change in mindsets, social policy and the availability of alternatives. These changes are not necessarily natural phenomenon, it will take a very proactive society and government to bring about.

Society's major role is to remedy the conditions that encourage subservience and subjugation, especially the caste system and to oppose and report all forms of child labor.

The Government has had legislation in place for years but without enforcement, success is a distant dream. There is a lack of recognition of consequence and respect for law that creates the absence of self-limitation and compliance. With stricter enforcement and punishment for the offense some of that compliance can be achieved. Financial incentives such as tax benefits for employers that do not employ children in sectors where child labor is common would also help. Right to education must not only be enforced but also shown to ultimately provide superior benefits. The availability of better paying and decent opportunities for the educated youth will be a compulsion for parents to send their children to school rather than off to work. As far as alternatives to work for the children are concerned there is some good news; India's Ministry of Labour reports that the number of children withdrawn from hazardous jobs and enrolled in special schools under the National Child Labour Project has more than doubled in the last three years.

As long as labor is equated with survival, no matter how deplorable the working conditions are parents and children will prefer employment to unemployment. They will support child labor employers and find ways to subvert the law. Pulling them out of this extreme economic necessity will require further bolstering of economic policies that are poor and rural driven. The National employment Garuntee scheme needs a massive overhaul to be rid of the corruption and the diversion of funds into the wrong hands.

The child labor situation in India is grim. We cannot allow our children to grow up under these circumstances. We have a responsibility to show them that they have been born in to a world that cares for them and one that is willing to protect them.

Resources and References:
Govt. Of India Ministry of Labour (PIB Press Release)
"Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image" , The Observer
Save the Child Foundation (Bachpan Bachao Andolan) Pictures from National Geographic
International Labour Foundation - Statistics and Databases "India's latest move to stop child labor", Anuj Chopra, Christian Science Monitor
"Child slavery: India's perpetuating dilema", Natasa Kocevic, Harvard Interantionl Review