Bill offers India's young domestic slaves an exit from ignorant misery
Rich families who employ children may soon face fines as the country strives to finally deliver education for all
In a large house in Delhi's leafy, affluent neighbourhood of Nizamuddin East, Kasturi is employed as a nanny. Her employers, the Sawhneys, work for a multinational firm.
Kasturi rises at 6.30 am on weekdays to help get her young ward ready for school. Later on, she sweeps, mops and dusts the house. But if a new draft bill on education is passed by the Indian parliament this month, the Sawhneys could be fined 500 rupees (HK$85), plus a daily penalty of 50 rupees for every day that Kasturi misses school - because at just 12 years old, Kasturi should be at school herself.
Ensuring that all children aged between six and 14 attend school has been the stated aim of every government for the past 50 years, but the reality falls far short of that objective. Of the 200 million children within that age group, 43 million do not attend school, the government admitted in its recent report to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children.
The new Free and Compulsory Education for Children Bill aims to get those children into the classroom by punishing Indians who hire underage workers to labour in their homes, offices and factories.
The practice of employing children to cook and clean is common. In the kitchen of many rich homes there is invariably a chotu - Hindi for 'little boy' - cooking and cleaning. The chotu is usually multi-skilled because in his spare moments he is ordered to play cricket or football with the children of the house.
In Jangpura Extension - an upmarket area of southern Delhi, a well-off family employs a 10-year-old chotu for cleaning the house, washing the car and chopping vegetables. While he works a 12-hour day, his employers' children - who happen to be the same age - frolic happily, watching TV, playing in the park, working on the computer or shopping.
And while some Indian families may treat their hired chotu affectionately, others do not. Some justify the practice by arguing that the child's family is poor and desperate for the income, but others simply want a young, pliable person to slave for them for a pitiful wage.
But under the bill, no child can be employed in such a way that it prevents him or her attending school. In the past, similar efforts have failed owing to difficulties in enforcement. But this time the bill provides for 'attendance inspectors' who will be responsible for surveillance in every locality.
'Vast numbers of children in the cities work as domestic servants so this bill can change their lives for the better,' Unesco adviser Chetna Kohli said.
'It also shows a new determination on the part of the government because the bill says it 'will' educate children up to age 14, whereas all earlier acts said it would 'endeavour' to do so.'
Unesco is also pleased with another feature of the bill requiring all private schools - where the children of affluent Indians are educated - to allocate 20 per cent of their places to poor children without charging the full fee. Some private schools already do this. Loretto School in Calcutta gives half its places to needy children.
If rich parents baulk at the idea of their offspring mingling in the same classroom with children like Kasturi or other chotus, the school tells them firmly either to accept the arrangement or find another school.
But getting children into school is one thing - keeping them there is another. Forty per cent of children who enrol at state schools drop out in the first year, mainly because of absentee teachers. A surprise morning visit to a New Delhi school by the education minister last year revealed that all 32 teachers were missing, the only adult being the caretaker.
The schools can also be off-putting to children. A 1999 survey of primary schools in north India by a group called Public Report on Basic Education revealed that 26 per cent of classrooms had no blackboards, 52 per cent had no playgrounds, 67 per cent no teaching kits and 75 per cent no toys. When asked, Kasturi was unable to say what year or even what century it was, much less name India's prime minister. But if the new bill is effective, it will save her and millions of other children from the fate of being labelled 'thumb-stampers', a term used to describe those who cannot write their name.