The middle classes object to poor children working in sweatshops, whether in Sivakasi match factories or the carpet industry in Kashmir. But they consider it the height of achievement to get a child onto a television show or a modelling contract
Child labour hits the headlines periodically, prompting a cynical, largely blasé population to make the necessary politically correct noises. As I write this column, the Right to Education Act has ensured that education for child labour is hotly debated by educationists, legislators, on television, and in the print media.
Unicef, Save The Children and hundreds of Indian NGOs have worked tirelessly for child rights, and after decades succeeded in making it an issue at least on paper. These, however, are the rights of children of what our society deems lesser humans. Kids coming from the economically deprived sections of society. The poor, voiceless, below-the poverty-line people who still make up the bulk of our population.
However, I wish to draw attention to a breed of child workers who hit the headlines in another way. Their labour is glorified. They are feted, photographed, pampered and spoiled. Nevertheless, they also toil and are deprived of their childhood, their innocence and their rights.
I'm talking about child celebrities, whether film stars, models, sports icons, or prodigies of different kinds.
Of course very often, these are children with exceptional talent. Their talent should without doubt flourish and inspire others to excellence. Through the ages, children have been initiated into classical dance and music. And they thrive on the discipline and rigour imposed on them. I object only to the exploitation of children for commercial purposes, Should children be commercially exploited as is mostly the case in the ad world? Is it right to push them beyond what is acceptable for a child? In the sports world, is it healthy to put kids into training camps where they are deprived of family, school, peer group, friends and playmates? Is it fair to blinker them like race horses, (officially they are merely being “made to focus”) to run the strenuous course success demands?
In the ‘50s and ’60s, one read about Hollywood child stars and the sadness of their lives, overexposed to the media, though the fourth estate was far less intrusive or aggressive than it is today. A google search leads you to a galaxy of child stars with their earlier kiddy pictures interspersed with lives as hot new stars today. One site (All Grown Up: The 23 Hottest Former Child Stars (http://amog.com/entertainment/celebrity/all-grown-up-the-hottest-former-child-stars/) glorifies their achievements, their rapid rise to fame. Most television addicts, their brains blasted by inane soundbytes, adore the stunning size-zero women panting at the camera, lips parted, cleavage (real or collagened) thrust out and displayed to titillate the viewer. They consider these women the ultimate in success. But even this site appears slightly apologetic and taken aback by a child star who began her career as an 11-month-old baby. Most of the 23 children portrayed began their careers before the age of 10, many of them on much loved, popular family serials like Sesame Street or the Bill Cosby Show. It is possible those with sensible parents survived with their emotions intact. Most of us have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Cosby show and Sesame Street and considered them wholesome, innocuous family entertainment. But how many of us would have given a second thought to the long-term fate, the future of any of these beloved child stars. Likewise on this site -- no questions are asked or answered regarding the wellbeing or happiness of such children.
The middle classes may tut-tut at the way the poor send their children to work in sweatshops, whether in Sivakasi match factories or the leather curing industry of Tamil Nadu, or to roll beedis and agarbattis, make carpets in Kashmir, or provide cheap, easy-to-abuse domestic labour in city apartments all over the country. But the average middle class parent reared on popular TV serials considers it the height of ambition and achievement to get a child onto a television show or nab a modelling assignment. It’s seen as having arrived, both socially as well as financially.
In India, television has created an army of parents eager to push their children into the limelight, to jump onto the fame bandwagon. There are opportunities galore. A producer friend told us he was exhausted dealing with aggressive parents pushing their kids at him for his TV show. They didn't care anymore if the child missed school, fell behind academically, missed exams even. Apparently all those things can be shoved on the back burner because that one elusive shot at stardom could lead to instant fame, greater glory and a fabulous income on the small screen.
I myself have never stopped to reflect on the rights or lack of them, of such children. But recently my son, a filmmaker, was invited to trail such a kid, made famous by a popular ad and being egged on, presumably by his parents, to perform a superhuman feat (even for an adult), to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The child at five was already a confused, almost psychiatric case. He could not attend school as he was unused to not being the centre of attraction and would not tolerate the slightest reprimand or correction from teachers. He could not be a normal child like other kids in a classroom. He'd been pampered and given in to as a child star and was already behaving like a prima donna. At five he was definitely a disaster waiting to happen.
The question of excellence in sport is slightly more complicated. Take the case of Budhia Singh, the six-year-old adivasi boy from Orissa. A natural untrained athlete, he ran 40 miles at the age of four. But as soon as Budhia hit the media headlines and national fame, he was in trouble. All kinds of people began to jump on the bandwagon to exploit his untrained, still untainted talent. Budhia's coach was alleged to have started beating him in an attempt to get him to push his amazing talent even further and faster at the ludicrously young age of six .
Most tribal kids are natural athletes and can outrun, outshoot (in archery if they are from a hunting tribe) and outperform the average non-tribal kid in any sports meet. Their essentially outdoors lifestyle renders them more supple, agile and fit. Or perhaps like Africans and Afro Americans they have special genes!
Recently Anu and Krishna from Thulir in Tamil Nadu, took a group of adivasi youngsters to Pondicherry to take part in a marathon. The boys ran easily and stayed the course with no training whatsoever! One of them came first. He breasted the tape and ran off to drink some water. The boy who came second, a city kid, ran up to the finishing line cheering ecstatically. He brandished the victory sign excitedly, jumping for joy, arms triumphantly pumping the air. Everyone crowded around congratulating him, assuming he was the winner. It took the organisers a while before they realised the adivasi kid had come first but without the accompanying fanfare. There was real shock when it dawned on everyone that winning was not part of adivasi culture. The tribal kid simply did not think it was a big deal. Actually few people present could even begin to comprehend his attitude.
For us, the community of activists, NGOs, educationists, or social workers, it poses a convoluted question. A moral dilemma in fact. Should we lead these children into the sports arena because their natural athletic prowess excites us, reared as we are in the competitive non-tribal spirit? Even though we know deep down in our hearts that their values are better? Inherently nobler?
Perhaps the most disturbing of all are those pathetic rich kids who are sent into commercial modelling.
They are generally upper or middle class children because few poor people have access to the corridors of power leading to television or ad agency hot-shot producers. Shooting, cameras, action, lights. It’s an unnatural, artificial world the child is plunged into. The purpose is mere money and fame. A Gulf-returned, TV-addicted woman was proudly displaying photographs of her family. She was carefully grooming her prettiest daughters to become child models. They were being posed, taught to pout suggestively at the camera. The make-up added to the Lolita effect. A grotesque parody of innocent beauty. Yet most people thought it was cute. Did the child ask for its life to be disrupted?? No. No child naturally has such aspirations or ambitions. These are the parents' ambitions, greed and need. Projected onto a hapless child it distorts forever the kid's childhood and possibly its future, particularly if one modelling assignment leads to another. The child is completely and absolutely vulnerable. Fame and glory can turn the child's head. Make it vain, precocious and unnatural. These kids are certainly better clothed, fed and cosseted than their counterparts in sweatshops. But are they mentally better off? Their minds become warped and twisted. Many child stars end up totally ruined by the orgy of drugs, sex and alcohol which they encounter at an early age, in the strange, artificial industry they are inducted into. They are not surrounded by normal people. And they end up depressed, suicidal and mentally unstable.
Most of the Indian population with television access is currently in the middle of being rendered brain dead, their intelligence numbed by popular programmes designed to win hearts and ruin minds. Very few people would fault the ambitious, pushy, rich or middle class parents for exploiting their children on the silver screen.
However, Article 39 of the Constitution requires that "the tender age of children is not abused". And additionally, that no child "is forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength". Strangely though, child labour per se, is not illegal in India.
Child labour in India is governed by two important laws. These are the Factories Act, 1948 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986. These two Acts are aimed at protecting children below 14 from being employed in certain specified factories and hazardous occupations. Penalties are imposed for non-compliance -- 3-12 months imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000-20,000 for a first offence, and a mandatory jail term of six months to two years for repeat offences. But both these Acts sees the “abuse of the tender age of children” more in a physical context.
So, of course, the sports, film and ad industries are not covered by this or any other Act to protect children. We assume wealthy or middle class parents are more responsible than the poor. That they would not allow their children to be harmed. So does the government of India. And it’s difficult to measure mental and spiritual damage. Or damage to the child's spirit and soul.
Given the exorbitant cost of TV advertising, there is an overarching need for ad films to capture audience attention in a flash, without the viewer becoming bored and switching channels. We are talking seconds here, not even minutes. This intense competition for attention induces advertisers to use not just young children but even infants and babies, in order to grab and hold audience attention for those few all-important seconds.
Ask any advertiser and they will tell you that there is nothing like a child star to sell a product – from soap (remember the awardwinning ad of the Nirma girl whirling around in a mini frock?) to mobile service providers like the famous Vodafone boy now girl with the little pug. Practically every other car ad features a child.
That children sell products has obviously grown to become an unchallenged advertising axiom. But at what price to the child?
The fact that children under 14 are used extensively in the advertising industry has complicated implications. The average child labour laws are made to cover kids between 5-14 years, so children below 5 are not considered at all. This is the only industry that employs babies, toddlers and even newborn infants.
India needs to wake up to the fact that child labour extends to the fast lane used by Indian high society too. We must look to the west here, to implement new laws safeguarding rich kids from their avaricious parents.
Professor R Vaidyanathan from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has examined Swedish and US laws and practice pertaining to children and advertising, argues in an article in the Hindu Business Line that the EU and US for instance has better regulations governing children in the advertising industry. They address two inter-related issues... One, using child labour to promote products. And two, luring young children to demand these products of their parents. These issues are inter-related as, unless child actors are used, the persuasion may not work with the child audience watching the ads. He suggests we need regulations such as the Self-Regulation Code of Children's Advertising prepared by the European industries cell, based in Brussels (November 2001 code) which stipulates that the advertisement should not exploit the inexperience or credulity of children. There is more. The Code also clearly points out that the advertisements should not undermine the authority or responsibility of parents. It should not include any direct appeal to children to persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them. Programme personalities, live or animated, should not be used to sell products in or adjacent to programmes in which the same personality appears. The list is long and runs to several pages. The Indian government needs to adopt this kind of practice after adapting it to Indian conditions.
It is high time we recognised that the “tender age of children” can be abused in myriad ways. And that masking this abuse through glamorisation, stardom and often immeasurable financial gain is no longer acceptable. If we are to call ourselves a civilised society we must see the unabashed use of children to generate profits for investors for what it is – a blatant and criminal abuse of the rights of a child.
I discovered a quote which helped sum up the spirit of my disquiet with children being exploited commercially in advertising and modelling. Dr Olson Huff, MD, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, puts it passionately and powerfully.
"It's a sad day for us all when our children are so trivialised as to become objects of exploitation for economic gain. It is an even sadder day when their bodies are used to broker for commercial enterprise and their innocence destroyed by greed.
“Such is the case when children are used as objects to advertise products which project them into positions of sexual manipulation and fantasy. We should be aware of their exploitation and be sickened by it. At the centre of our moral, ethical, and religious beliefs is that we are responsible for nurturing and protecting our children. When we begin to relent on those standards, especially for economic gain, we have begun to tear down the pillars on which are built our hopes, our dreams, our beliefs and our futures.
“We should never, never allow this to happen!"
Infochange News & Features, May 2010