Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2011 > The Case Is Not Closed

Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 26, June 18, 2011

The Case Is Not Closed

Monday 20 June 2011, by Nirmalya Biswas

June 12 happens to be the World Day Against Child Labour. We are publishing the following article in that context.

Childhood happens once. But many do not have a childhood at all. The employers of the domestic child workers commonly see themselves as the messiahs. The notion of generosity gives them a human face. The policy that ‘child must not work’ is not negotiable. In an affluent middle-class family male members usually have the edge on their female counterparts while sharing the domestic obligations. Appointing a domestic servant, preferably a child, is supposed to be the easiest way out for the male members to bypass their part of the duties unnoticed.

Down Memory Lane

A young couple in Calcutta, both working, planned to make their odd household jobs a bit manageable. The husband saw reason to agree to the wife’s idea to engage a boy servant who would do the household chores and at times play with their little son. A paltry wage would not trouble the family budget. The boy would surely eat less than a grown-up one. The widower father had no choice but to allow his son to work in the couple’s house expecting that the poor boy would at least get a square meal daily along with some earnings for the unfortunate family.

Unaware of the danger of sleeping in the kitchen without proper ventilation, the servant boy died of carbon monoxide poisoning on a cold winter night. The charcoal of the oven was dimly burning. Curious onlookers thronged in front of the couple’s residence. The couple was caught up in arguments blaming each other for the tragic episode. A helpful neighbour, sensing trouble, came to their rescue. A competent lawyer was consulted. The couple tried in vain to pass the buck on the house owner who did not provide a ventilator in the kitchen which should not be used in any case as a living room.

The bereaved father was inconsolable. But much to the relief of the couple he accused none but his destiny. He had no mind to blame, no vigour to vent his anger. Humble and low all along at the denouement, the ill fated father was seen begging permission from the couple to leave.

Down memory lane I recall the above tragedy from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Kharij’,1 meaning ‘The Case is Closed’. The exploitation of the domestic child workers by the urban middle class was never been brought out so uncompromisingly in Indian movies than in ‘Kharij’. The director dealt with the contradictions of the couple’s haunted conscience exposing unfailingly the prototype selfishness of the bourgeois values which endorse exploitation. Today after almost thirty years since Kharij was first released in 1982 in Calcutta, the soul of the bereaved father revolts for the case which is not closed.

Three Decades Later

I see her every day at the bus stop. She is in her early teens. She escorts a girl of her age in school uniform and carries her satchel. They wait for the school bus to arrive. When it arrives, she promptly hands it over to the girl who boards the bus which soon speeds away. She returns her employer’s home to do the chores. She is my neighborhood child maid. Like me many are used not to worry for the child who works while others her age go to school.

Nipped in the Bud

SOME ten years later if she is fortunate enough to escape anything of the worst kind she will continue to work as a maid. Maybe, she will get married. Destined to be poor her children may have to oblige their employers all along letting their childhood go. Childhood happens once. But many do not have a childhood at all.

When a poor young girl is engaged as a maid in an upper-middle class family in the city she is somewhat hesitant. Little does she know what lies ahead for her there. Her day will begin at the crack of dawn. She will do all the household chores, such as cooking, washing, ironing, cleaning and caring her employer’s children too. She will often be scolded and at times beaten up for not doing her work properly. The corner of a drawing room or a kitchen will be the place where she will sleep late at night. Her dreams will slowly wither away.

Invisible Slavery

THE master’s relation with the domestic child worker is alienated by conflicting class interests. The former belongs to a dominating position and goes for the traditions and preferences unfamiliar to the other. The culture of the metropolitan society hardly suits the poor child. She feels humiliated to be identified by her cowed livelihood. Such incidents happen next to our doors but these are of no concern for anyone. Away from her home she does not find it easy to get in touch with her parents. She is allowed to go on a trip to her home once a year at the most. Because of separation from her family she is easy prey to psychological and physical violence. Hardly anyone is there to protect her. The violence against the domestic child worker is seldom reported unless it involves grave physical torture like merciless beating, burning with hot water or hot iron, sexual abuse and something worse than these. City dwellers habitually do not interfere into the privacy of the neighbour’s family affairs. Such attempts may be counterproductive for them since their own conducts are not above question.

Notion of Benevolence

THE employers of the domestic child workers commonly see themselves as the messiahs who provide them food, clothing and shelter. “How can the kids of a poor family survive unless they work? Or else, they will either beg or filch,” they argue. The notion of generosity gives the exploiter a human face. It is as if to legitimatise the exploiting arrangement. It does long-term harm to the domestic child labourers who are denied education and scope of empowerment. Just because children are given food or money does not mean that they are benefiting. They are cheap and made to work long hours without protest. The policy that ‘no child must work’ is not negotiable.

Statutory Obligations

ARTICLE 24 of the Indian Constitution clearly directs that “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment”. Shockingly the Government of India (GOI) took just about thirty years after the country’s independence to bring in The Bonded Labour System Act of 1976, which “frees all bonded labourers, cancels any outstanding debts against them, prohibits the creation of new bondage agree-ments, and orders the economic rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers by the state”.2 Then another ten years passed before the GOI introduced The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 to “prohibit the employment of children who have not completed their 14th year in specified hazardous occupations and processes”.

The GOI extended the coverage of the Act and banned employment of children under the age of 14 years as domestic workers and as workers in teashops, restaurants, dhabas (roadside eateries), hotels, spas, resorts or in other recreational centres effective from October 10, 2006. Anyone found violating the ban will be penalised with a punishment ranging from a jail term of three months to two years and/or a fine ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000. The penalty is not befitting and appears to be a mere formality. Stronger laws need to be made to deal with such an issue that is so serious.

Insufficient Data

FIVE years have passed since 2006 when employ-ment of children as domestic workers has been banned in India. Are they any better now? It is a phenomenal task to collect information about domestic child labourers. The employers neither allow them to talk with outsiders nor entertain any query. In India 20 per cent of the working children under-14 is engaged in domestic service.3 The 2001 Census reports that over 12 million children aged between 5 and 14 continue working in various occupations including many hazardous occupations. The figure includes some 1.85 million children working in-house and roadside eateries. This is surely a conservative estimate. NGOs estimate the figure to be around 20 million.4 The government figures do not acknowledge millions of children, representing 70 per cent of the total, working in agriculture. India is indeed a country of stark contrasts. We have the distinction of having achieved striking growth and permitted the rise of an awfully high number of domestic child labourers in the world.

Absence of Target Specific Intervention

LEGISLATION is a start. The violation cannot be stopped by just introducing a ban. There needs to be an effective strategy to enforce the law. The ban won’t work unless the mindset changes. Children are widely employed in the homes of India’s affluent and middle classes. There is no target-specific intervention by the government. The enforcement data for domestic child labour are seldom available. “A glaring sign of neglect of their duties by officials charged with enforcing child labour laws is the failure to collect, maintain, and disseminate accurate statistics regarding enforcement efforts,” observed Human Rights Watch in 1996.5

A Survey Report

THERE is hardly any survey conducted among the whole-time domestic child workers in India. The Department of Pediatrics, Islamia Hospital, Kolkata, the Biological Anthropology Unit and Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata conducted a survey6 in 2008 to look into the socioeconomic conditions, and health and nutritional status of wholetime child domestic labour. As many as 2500 households were visited in the metropolitan city of Kolkata in which 330 domestic child labours were found to be within the age group of 8 to14 years. The majority (85.2 per cent) of children were girls coming from illiterate families. Most of their parents (mothers 95 per cent, father 70.9 per cent) were illiterate. A significant proportion (37.8 per cent) was school drop-outs. Mothers of 45.2 per cent children worked as maidservants. While 49.1 per cent of the children earned Rs 101-200 per month and 2.7 per cent drew no salary at all. A total of 35.5 per cent was subjected to verbal and physical abuses and 3.4 per cent to sexual abuse. The nature and type of non-accidental injuries ranged from bruises, ecchymosis, pain and tenderness to frank hematoma. They suffered from anemia, gastrointestinal tract infections, vitamin deficiencies, respiratory tract infections and skin diseases along with a high prevalence of malnutrition.

Comprehensive Planning

RIGHT to education has been recognised by the 86th Amendment to the Constitution of India. The government must ensure that every child goes to school. Children cannot be expected to be both working as well as attending school simultaneously. A comprehensive plan to with-draw children from work and admit them to school works better. The task is challenging indeed but the target is very much within reach.

The panchayets can play a pivotal role. They are to keep an eye on the whereabouts of the children in the village. If a child is not traceable they should immediately make an enquiry in the family, inform it to the local police station and pursue the case till the victim is rescued. A list of missing children may be displayed publicly. The government is to develop a mechanism for review of the work done by the local bodies and publish a comprehensive report annually. Civil society too has a great role to create public awareness against child workers in any form and to work with the government for enforcing the law.

Gender Biased

IN a male dominating society like in India the odd household jobs, such as cooking, washing, cleaning, taking care of children and old parents, have always been assigned to the women members of the family. It is usually obvious that in an affluent middle-class family male members have the edge on their female counterparts while sharing the domestic obligations. The division of family duties has never been a major issue for the women’s movement in India. Appointing a domestic servant, preferably a child, is supposed to be the easiest way out for the male members to bypass their part of duties unnoticed. The relationship between the husband, wife and the domestic servant is by no means one-dimensional. Class privilege ultimately guards gender privilege.


1. ‘Kharij’, translated as ‘The Case is Closed’, is a 1982 Bengali film by Mrinal Sen based on a novel by Ramapada Chowdhury. The film won the Special Jury Prize in 1983 at Cannes.

2. Human Rights Watch 1996, 30. Source: India’s Colonial History, Tradition of Caste-based Work, and Slavery (Chatterjee, 199); Patnaik and Dingwaney (eds), 1985).

3. Helping Hands or Shackled Lives, ILO-IPEC study on domestic labour, 2004

4. ‘Enforcing the ban’ published in The Hindu’, October 20, 2006.

5. Human Rights Watch 1996, 131. Source: Ibid.
6. Indian Pediatrics (581), Volume 45, July 17, 2008.

The author is an Associate Professor in Commerce, Bankim Sardar College affiliated under the University of Calcutta. He can be contacted at e-mail:

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted