Broken dreams at Banaras Hindu University

India should start addressing its child labour issue. And top universities are the best place to start.

Working since early ages robs children of their most precious possession. Their childhood. Not only they don’t get educated, they also miss out on games and friendships their contemporaries can enjoy. But apparently, at least for some kids, there is no other option. Childhood has to be traded for food and money to provide for their families. Therefore, putting a stop to child labour would only make things worse. Or would it?

There is an ongoing debate about labour ethics in developing economies, whether bad job is worse than no job. There are good arguments on both sides and many people will argue that child labour, being part of the “bad job” category, cannot be eliminated as of now. It is a partial solution to poverty and hunger, however bad it may be. Regarding this issue, I stand more on the other side. And that is why I was truly upset when I saw boys not older than eight years working in a dining hall at one of India’s most prestigious educational institutions – Banaras Hindu University (BHU).


Royal jewel of education

Founded in 1916 by educationist, politician and freedom activist Madan Mohan Malaviya, BHU rightfully belongs to top Indian universities. And multiple rankings support this claim, as many international and Indian organizations alike put BHU into top three or top five universities in India. It also has pretty impressive alumni and former staff record, with former president Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Nobel prize laureate C. V. Raman being among the most notable. It is without doubt a great place of learning with proud heritage and it would be no exaggeration to say the future of India is being taught there. For these exact reasons child labour has no place in such institution.

I had spent some time on BHU’s enormous campus in Varanasi last year. It is truly a magnificent place, an oasis of tranquillity in hectic Varanasi, true academic institution devoted to learning and furthering of Indian society. I was staying with students of applied art and saw beautiful paintings, sculptures and other art forms at their department. Unfortunately, this whole idyll perished once I sat down by a steel table in the dorm’s dining hall and small boy in dirty clothes started serving all the students, me included, dal and chapatti. The students were, of course, use to it and I was not surprised by their lack of interest, but I didn’t understand how can the university tolerate it.

I asked one the boys, as he brought in a plate of fresh chapattis, how old is he. He said fourteen. He lied. There is no way he was older than ten, and I would put my most educated guess at eight years old.  He definitely wasn’t enjoying his work. And how could he when a dining hall is no place for such a young child to spend his day. Serving students while maybe realizing he will never be lucky enough to one day sit where they’re sitting. Asking my friends and other guys sitting close to me I was told they only work short morning shifts. Their facial expression and gestures read “Don’t you worry about it”. But I did worry about it, especially since I saw the same kids there the whole day until late afternoon, several days in a row.

BHU campus

I was also told the boys come from poor families and they’re working for leftover food. And I suppose this is true. The dining hall manager didn’t look like he would pay them actual money. Some of the students tried to put a positive spin on it. The situation may not be ideal but at least the boys bring some food back home and they’re not begging on the street. Which is again true. There are young boys their age roaming the streets, getting high inhaling toluene, adhesives or gasoline. No doubt, that is worse. Plus, they might literally be the breadwinners and their families depend on the leftover dal and chapatti. There is definitely a lot to consider when reflecting on the issue of child labour.


Jewel that is stained

But all things considered, the way BHU is approaching child labour is simply wrong and as a prestigious organization of tertiary education it can do so much better. First and foremost, BHU administration should realize that education doesn’t take place only in the classroom. How can you teach any moral values at all when you permit breaching of constitutional law, though only recently amended, at your campus? The university should rather take a firm stand against any form of child labour and set an example for others to follow. Allowing child labour at campus makes students indifferent to it, like it is acceptable to be served by kids, to take someone’s childhood away. The university is accepting the child labour enabler’s role, rendering it acceptable in educated society.

But it is unacceptable and deep down, people most likely know that. It is things like this which makes people think it is OK to employ children. Which is probably the worst part of this whole story, because when not even an institution as prestigious as BHU cannot take the moral high ground, who will? The less are policy makers fighting against this kind of exploitation, the more are people perceiving it as normal. And therefor have no reason to stand up against it. Moreover, BHU prestigious status means that many of its students will go on to be successful leaders in either private or public sphere. And if they become indifferent to child labour it will only perpetuate the issue. By tolerating child labour, BHU is failing at its most important role in the society.


Doing what is right

As was mentioned previously, there are some upsides to child labour. The discussion about it is therefore incredibly complicated. But one thing is clear: in the long run, there are absolutely no benefits to it. And that brings up another important point in this case. Child labour mustn’t be perceived as something unavoidable or permanent, and BHU’s should be the one taking the lead to show the rest of India there are alternatives to it. You can keep children off the streets and provide food for their families without sending them to work, especially when you are a respected institution with sufficient resources and bright minds to come up with different schemes to help vulnerable families. If there’s leftover food from canteens and dining halls, the university could collect it and make a food drive. Every initiative would be terrific. In BHU’s defence, the dining hall is run by a private company, so it’s not directly BHU who is engaging in illegal child labour. But it is still right on the campus, inside BHU’s dorm building, with BHU directly overseeing it and hiring the company, thus acting as an enabler. And in the end, all India need to stop child labour is to stop these enablers.

As of now, it is evident that child labour will not disappear any time soon, no matter the legislature. This issue is unfortunately deeply embedded in Indian society and since old habits die hard there will always be people willing to exploit children as workforce. India’s prestigious universities should not be in the same club, hindering social progress just because the majority population tolerates it. In this text, BHU was used just as an example, as the same applies for others. Everyone who enables child labour in any way is directly responsible for its victims. Even with the right legislature in place, it’s up to the people to say some things are just not right and have no place in the society.

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