An interview with
Prof. Shantha Sinha,
Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights
Bhoomika: First of all we would like to know about your association with JNU.
Prof. Sinha: I was in JNU from 1972 to '76. I did my Ph.D from Centre for Political Studies on Maoist Politics in Andhra Pradesh under the supervision of Prof. Seshadri. I was the first woman to get a Ph.D from SSS.
Bhoomika: Where did you start your career as a teacher?
Prof. Sinha: I joined Osmania University as a Lecturer. But in 1979, I shifted to Department of Political Science, Hyderabad University again as a Lecturer. Now I am a Professor in the same Department.
Bhoomika: Tell us something about your association with M V Foundation.
Prof. Sinha: We at M V Foundation started working for abolition of child labour in 1991. The basic premise underlying our endeavors is that no child is engaged in work and every child must go to school and she should have a wholesome, beautiful childhood. Our concern resonated with aspirations of poor parents for education. We found that even they did not want their child's childhood to be wasted in laboring for meager amounts. We have worked since in around 6000 villages basically in Andhra Pradesh. We articulated these ideas and gave confidence to parents and guardians of lakhs of children to pull them out of labour and reintegrate them into the school system. And parents have been found to readily agree with us. This goes against the idea that the poor want more income and hence send their children to work.
Bhoomika: How exactly does the programme work?
Prof. Sinha: At the micro-level it involves talking to the parents, teachers and the Gram Panchayat to convince them in favour of the cause. This is not easy always because the cause runs at odds with the system. We try to resolve the problem in a way which is most favourable and least harmful to the child.
As I have already said, the loss of income to the family has been the most insignificant problem. Child labour does not exist because of poverty. Instead poverty exists because of child labour. Child labour is in demand because it is the cheapest possible option for employers. If the child is removed from the job and an adult is recruited, s/he earns at least three times what the child earns. So the belief that the child supplements the family income is merely a façade created by the powerful employers and reinforced by societal norms and values. Why else is it always easier to convince parents about the welfare of their child? If money alone was driving them, they would never have agreed to send their children to school.
Bhoomika: What basic premise do you follow as the Chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights?
Prof. Sinha: Our main objective is that respect for every child is important and we strive to attain it While India has the largest network of government schools, 'anganwadi' centers, immunization program, social welfare hostels and 'ashram schools' majority of children especially among the poor are left out of the net of State services. What we are witnessing today can be best described as deficit childhood caused largely due to the failure of the State to provide for every child. A state of 'Statelessness' exists for all those children who have no access to their entitlements. As illiterates they live their lives as marginalized labor force being denied other opportunities and consequently are stuck in situations entirely unfavorable to them. They suffer from low confidence and low self- esteem and their role as citizens is compromised. If we deprive the majority of our children of their basic rights, the chances of bridging disparities between the rich and poor are remote. The values of equity and social justice which are intrinsic to democracy remain unfulfilled. Thus deficit childhood leads to deficit in citizenship and a deficit democracy.
The burning question is 'what is to be done?' We can not be mere spectators but must raise our voices whenever we see a child being exploited. For example just as in Europe, we too must be ethical consumers and refuse to accept products where child labour is involved at any stage of the production process. This would mean that we must find out whether the fabric which we wear is free from child labour. (Children are made to work on cotton fields, in printing and dying factories and also during the making of silk).We must find out if the construction works of the buildings we has not violated children's rights. (Children work practically in all brick kilns in quarrying of granite and mines of fancy marble and stones. Nor are their crèches for workers children on the sites, keeping them deprives of shelter, health, nutrition and all other protection). The food we consume, the wheat, rice, vegetables are also to be checked to ascertain that children have not been employed. We must build a consolidated consumer voice in India against products involving child labour.
Having said all that, I must also state individual acts have to be part of institutional efforts through various organizations and associations and forums to successfully achieve this goal.
At local levels people have shown willingness to transcend their parochial identities, stand up for universal human rights, engage with the authorities and protect children in their localities. I speak from my personal experience of working in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and the North East. The local populous is ready to take the extra step. But that is not enough. The action should be all pervasive.
Every right attained radicalises democracy. It builds the systems capacities to deliver services to all in an inclusive manner. At the same time it creates a new tradition and culture in favor of children. This enables children becoming children, parents becoming parents, teachers becoming teachers and gram panchayat members becoming gram panchayat members and democracy becoming what it should.
Bhoomika: Do you find JNUites different from others in your professional sphere?
Prof. Sinha: The shared values of JNUites are certainly more democratic and geared towards social transformation. They are also more aware of the issues at hand. This is true of students from different time zones. In administration, NGOs, police, courts, everywhere, JNU students strike a chord of familiarity. They mostly have a similar vocabulary and similar views.
Bhoomika: Which aspects of JNU do you like the most?
Prof. Sinha: Its national character. The ambience of JNU is very inclusive. Its university culture goes beyond the class room and peer learning is an effective aspect of the learning process in JNU. Besides, it is nice nostalgia.
Bhoomika: Is there anything in your life that you would like to dedicate to JNU?
Prof. Sinha: Whatever I have learnt in terms of deep commitment to secularism, socialism and democracy, I owe it all to JNU.