Child labour in Gujarat's cotton factories: Will Modi stop it?

We have been told that Narendra Modi is a decisive leader to the extent of being authoritarian, dictatorial but one who delivers. That has been the USP on which his spin doctors have built the entire Modi myth on. It resonates in various fora, starting from his lecture at Shri Ram College, New Delhi, to wherever else he moves in the country.

The media have kept us ignorant of many issues that have gripped Gujarat since 2002, where his performance is supposed to be the guide to the voters to determine if he is fit to be the steward of the country. We did not know that Modi had a law in place mandating 50 percent seats in local bodies for women. We did not know that the woman governor Kamal Beniwal had held back her ascent to it.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Nor did we know, despite being readers of newspapers and viewers of television for our news, that she held back the nod because Modi had clubbed a clause also mandating compulsory voting, desirable but not without its drawbacks. If she ever explained her stance, we are in the dark about it, because, not Gujarat but Modi has been the chosen theme of Narendra Modi. Now he is a leader economical with truth.

That is just one example. The dust of 2002, more the events after the Godhra arson, has put up an opaque screen around Gujarat, now touted as a model for the entire country, competing with the model that Nitish Kumar is developing in his Bihar. So how do we judge him as a leader who can deliver despite the fact that 2002 is now receding from the media agenda?

In short, we don’t know what Modi is selling us.

To my mind, Narendra Modi has an opportunity to prove that he is indeed the person who he says he is, as much as his followers do, thanks to a CNN-IBN expose on how cotton ginning factories in Kadi, a town north of Ahmedabad, have been employing children smuggled in from Rajasthan in hazardous conditions. They are legally speaking underaged to be labouring, inhale cotton dust, and get underpaid.

Truck drivers have spoken of how children are regularly brought in from neighbouring Rajasthan, brokers being involved, and how the police at check posts have never asked a question about them when ferried by trucks. Some children have been videographed. So has an owner of one of the ginning units. These details do not need further corroboration; the government has no leg to stand on because here the camera did not lie.

Now the straight question: How will Modi respond to it?

A person in the apparent race to the prime ministerial post cannot afford to even ignore it. Would he have the children picked up from these 350 ginning units and packed off to Rajasthan and say ‘problem solved’? Or fill them into some dingy, poorly run children’s home?

What he does is as important as ending the child slave labour which it patently is. Modi has his task cut out for it is no minor contravention of laws by the gin owners.

I would like to see him do the following:

One, rescue all the children from the factories and ask a trusted, reputed NGO like SEWA which is high on credibility but ready to work with him despite his poor human rights record and harbour them for a while.

Two, call the labour officer at the district headquarters whose job it is to enforce labour laws to his office and tell him he needn’t return to his office. Instead, he could go home and wait a criminal prosecution for aiding and abetting child labour but in a fast track court.

Three, meet the appropriate employees’ unions and impress upon them that these instances of dereliction of duty was not acceptable. Gujarat is an acclaimed industrial state has a whole lot of contract labour working across its length and breadth but with poor housing, in poor conditions.

Four, have a senior official sent to Kadi and have all the ginning factories sealed. Those who did not employ child labour would have to prove that they were clean, had adhered to the law, instead of the state proving that laws were violated which is normally the way prosecutions go.

Five, summon child welfare officers from Rajasthan after taking his Rajasthani counterpart into confidence, and with the help of responsible civil society group to return the children to their parental homes. Since Gujarat was found wanting in enforcing its relevant laws, it should take the responsibility of ensuring they do not lapse into child labour. But also ask the Centre to ensure their proper rehabilitation.

Six, ask civil societies, not his official machinery, to survey labour violations because allowing labour violations is not being industry-friendly. Ask the industries which come to Gujarat that while he facilitates what they need for starting them, land onwards, the state would not countenance infringement of laws. By his own claim, he ‘counsels’ those want to put up industries in his state.

Seven, ask the education department also to explain how these children in the factories escaped finding place in the statistics of children out of school. That list helps enforce the Right to Education Act but such laxity has even made the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan a joke.

In short, crack the whip because it violated the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986; the Factories Act, 1948; the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2000; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; and also the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 apart from the very spirit of the equity in society.

Since the children came from elsewhere, they have also escaped the inter-state migrant labour laws.

He should throw the book at everyone guilty.

If he did all this, maybe we would know if Narendra Modi is decisive or just runs a PR machine that has conned the media. That would tell if he is a person worth being a candidate for the top job. But then, we should also expect the media to report on this accurately without bringing in 2002 events.