Little children as young as six and five-year-old rummaging through trash heaps for some saleable or reusable items is a common sight in this country. They get exposed to all sorts of communicable diseases as well as physical harm. Highlighting the issue, a press report points out that trash picking has been classified as one of the worst forms of child labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). No formal attempt has, however, been made to determine the number of children engaged in this hazardous work. So far, only one national child labour survey was carried out as far back as in 1996 that put the number of child workers at 3.3 million. The current official estimates swing widely between 2 million and 19 million. That speaks volumes for the governmental apathy towards children, the future of this country.
The said report also quotes a study survey conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), which though old – by 14 years – gives an insight into the minds of child trash pickers, their hopes and dreams as well as anger at abuse and being left behind. All of them expressed a desire for better housing, decent clothes and hygienic food; 33 percent wished to go to school; and 32 percent hoped to find better work on growing up. Twenty-seven percent said they were subjected to sexual abuse, and more than 50 percent to physical punishment showing an inclination to take revenge from their tormentors. Theirs is a story of wasted childhoods, physical and psychological hurt, and harmful for society’s progress and development. Many such young people could turn out to be notable scientists, mathematicians, artists or writers, making significant contributions to the good of society if they had self-improvement opportunities. Denial only adds to the multitude of unemployed, and as some of the respondents in the SPDI survey indicated, also urges them to take to a life of crime to avenge injustices.
The growing youth bulge can become a bane or a boon, depending on the priorities this country’s policy planners set. The two things that need to be done are all too obvious. One is translating into action the oft-repeated vows of putting all children in school. And second, to equip children from disadvantage backgrounds with skills relevant to the needs of the job market. The existing basic education is both weak in content and inadequate in outreach. Similar is the case with various skill development schemes. It is about time governments at the Centre and in the provinces pay serious attention to the challenge and deal with it on an emergency basis. That is the only way forward.