On 6th November 2009, Manjari Nayek, a young girl of about 15 or 16, escaped from the house of Shree Prakash Misra and Madhuri Das. She has been admitted to a hospital after it was found that she had been brutally tortured by Misra and Das. She is still fighting for her life in the hospital, and the prognosis is uncertain.
In the hospital, she urged that her parents, poor people in Rourkela, should not be informed of her condition, as they cannot afford to come. This young girl of a poor background represents one of tens of thousands of semi-slave underage domestic servants. Cocking a snook at the law that forbids the employment of underage boys and girls, many even younger than Manjari are hired by the well to do. Misra and Das, for example, are respectively a high ranking officer of the Reserve Bank of india and an NGO worker. They live in the posh parts of Alipur in Kolkata. Such people would like to live a life of comfort, even luxury, and exploit the labour of young children in order to do so. The complexities of Indian capitalist development have meant the persistence of backwardness in parts combined with the latest developments in other parts. Indian capitalism and its hangers on indeed batten on this super exploited layer, since India does not have colonies to exploit. Misra and Das, and tens of thousands like them, are the ones who would throng the shopping malls, or buy huge quantities of gold ornaments at Dhanteras, or buy shares pushing up the share market and gladdening the hearts of Pranab Mukherjee. These same people would find it absolutely normal to have their domestic “servants” (formally calling them domestic worker) work for 14 hours a day with no time off.
Manjari has been employed since 2007, in other words, from an age when she was too young to be employed. Madhuri Das told the police that she was the daughter of relatives. The police said Manjari told them her employers beat her up on 5th November and kept her locked up without water and food. She managed to escape on the 6th and was helped by the caretaker of the housing complex where Misra and Das live. He took her to the SSKM hospital, where she was treated and from where the police got the news.
What does one do in such cases? The most immediate demand should be punishment of her employers. Maitree, the Calcutta based Women’s Network, has indeed raised this demand. But as long as poverty is so massively present, parents will be compelled to send off their kids to work instead of going to sending them to school. In particular, though not exclusively, girl children are at risk. Responses that focus on implementing the law banning child labour are inadequate, because such limited responses do not take up the question of how such a law will be implemented and what the consequences will be. One presumes that poor parents do not use their children as money making resources out of fun. Indeed, one could make out a case that the children who appear in innumerable television programmes and earn money are being exploited more by their usually better off parents than the poor parents who send off the children to the cities in the hope that the child herself will be fed and clothed, and that perhaps some money will also come to feed the younger sibling. Unless there is a collective social responsibility, beginning with a demand being addressed to the Indian state, that it must ensure that the ban on child labour is made meaningful by ensuring that children get food, education and health-care, and that employment is available to all adults so they do not have to send their children to work at a tender age. The ruling class and its ideological voices claim socialism cannot solve the problems of the exploited, the poor. Let them first prove capitalism can do so. Those who extol the virtues of the market, let them stand up and be counted among those who do not wish to hire under age children and brutally torture them.
As long as “civil society” in its upper class avatar fails to rise to the call of not hiring children and not torturing them, it proves that ultimately this too is part of the class struggle. As in earlier ages, a ban on child labour, and the securing of socio-economic rights, will have to depend on militant struggles by the toiling people organizing themselves, rather than on big-hearted philanthropists.