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Prof. T.K. Thomas
Prof. T.K. Thomas
Opinion

Spare A Thought For Children And ...The Courts

Prof. T K Thomas

Deepavali undoubtedly is the most beautiful festival of India which heralds the arrival of the winter chill. One remembers landing in Delhi on Deepawali around midnight. As the aircraft was descending, the view below was absolutely breathtaking with the Deepavali lights illuminating the entire skyline. Other countries may boast of city lights made popular by the Country singer of the 1960s Ray Price singing “A bright array of city lights”. But the Deepavali lights of our national capital are not just routine ‘array of city lights’. For us, Deepavali signifies an entire nation reliving the return of a just king to a capital city brilliantly illuminated by lights or ‘diyas’. As one drove home in a cab, the lights, ‘diyas’, candles and multi hued electric bulbs had become more bewitching and such a spectacle of the magical night of Deepavali lights is special to our land.

One’s view of spectacular Deepavali illumination that night was soon interrupted by deafening sounds of fire crackers. As kids most of us have enjoyed the colours and sounds of crackers. Of course unlike today’s kids and even adults, we were blissfully ignorant about the dangers of chemical emissions from fire crackers in those days. Over the years, pollution levels in Delhi have touched most dangerous levels with the onset of winter marking stubble burning by farmers alleged to be a major cause. The Deepavali cracker menace aggravates the pollution levels.

No amount of persuasion using the media seems to deter people from this dangerous pastime. The pollution control agencies, public health experts, and civil society groups have been crying hoarse to no avail and finally it was left to the apex court to save Delhi from a veritable gas chamber. And the Supreme Court did pass a verdict and restricted the use of crackers on Deepavali night to just two hours from 8 to 10PM. Unfortunately an inadequate Delhi Police force entrusted with the implementation of the apex court order, ended up charging a few hundred people for ignoring the court directive. Living on the seventh floor of an apartment block, one started hearing cracker sounds from 7 PM and shortly after midnight one was awakened again by deafening sounds of crackers from a not too distant neighborhood. They made a mockery of the judicial diktat of 8 to 10 PM!

A mortifying experience about three decades ago remains etched in as a bad memory. It was Deepavali celebrations at a friend’s home near India Gate. The whole multi storied government apartment block was illuminated and bursting of firecrackers was at its peak. As one walked towards the building, could see whizzing rockets being fired off from a nearby house. Lo and behold one of them instead of going up took a low parabolic route and hit one straight on the chest. Fortunately the pure wool sweater one was wearing saved the situation. The rocket penetrated the sweater, burned the shirt and a few currency notes inside the pocket but not beyond! Since then one does not go out on Deepavali nights. Once bitten twice shy?

Two thoughts flash in one’s mind. Firstly, irresponsible and indiscriminate bursting of crackers can cause physical harm and major fires. There have been plenty of terrible fire tragedies on such days keeping the firemen who are unable to celebrate the festival of lights on their toes; secondly, the damage firecracker industry causes to innumerable children they employ in the hazardous fireworks industry.

As a person working with children, one feels that excessive use of crackers not only violates laws but also a number of provisions of child rights. India was quick to accept the Universal Declaration of Child Rights and adopt it. We often refer to child labour in the context of the firecracker industry. But there are other provisions of child rights. In fact Article 39[d] of the International Labour Organization[ I L O] Convention defines hazardous industries as ,” work which by its nature or circumstances in which it is carried out , is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children”. The firecracker industry is one of the most hazardous industries employing children along with glass blowing, carpet making, construction, tendu leaves, tobacco and beedi making; not to forget child trafficking, bootlegging and child prostitution. It is worth listing the major rights of the children:

# Right to Survival- to life, health, nutrition, name, nationality

# Right to Development- to education, care, leisure, recreation, cultural activities

#Right to Protection- from exploitation, abuse, neglect

# Right to Participation-in expression, information, thought, religion.

Think of children in the firecracker industry in the context of these child rights.

One has realized that there are plenty of laws banning child labour but the ground realities do not reflect existence of or strict adherence to such laws. In ground zero of the industry, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, the children are reportedly working in organized and unorganized sectors exposed to the perils of the worst substances endangering them. It is said that each cracker manufacturing unit is like a powder keg, highly inflammable and from time to time major accidents do occur killing workers. It is heartening that there are interventions in some manufacturing units to minimize the risks and give some succor to the hapless children by providing educational and recreational facilities.

The paradox is that while children of Sivakasi risk their lives to earn and support their families by using bare hands to make crackers, children in Delhi and elsewhere have short lived fun bursting those crackers. Schools and teachers have been telling children how their peers in cracker manufacturing are risking their lives. Of course many children, empathizing with the cracker making children, have abstained from crackers during Deepavali and other festivals. It is possible to motivate children using this example to say no to crackers.

These are questions of advocacy and motivational communication. In the final analysis, a large number of fire cracker and other hazardous industries allegedly employing child labor may be accused of breaking laws and violating human/child rights. But do those who buy crackers realize this?

“Ours is a wonderful country”, one’s former senior colleague in broadcasting, the late C R Ramaswamy, popularly known as CR, in his characteristic witty style said. He was referring to the utter contempt with which court decisions have been ignored by the citizens. The Supreme Court decision on crackers is just a symptom of a deep rooted malice for total disregard to court decisions which is not a new phenomenon. CR with a law degree was actually referring to the Shah Bano case of 1985, when a 62 year Muslim divorcee and mother of five children from Indore [Madhya Pradesh] approached the Supreme Court for grant of maintenance from her former husband Mohammed Ahmed Khan and got a favourable decision in a landmark judgment. The then government chose the legislative route by enacting a law ‘’Muslim Women [Protection on Divorce] Act” to scuttle the judgment of the apex court. Of course the Supreme Court later upheld the Shah Bano verdict and annulled the “Muslim Women [Protection on Divorce ] Act”. What CR said on not following judgments and blatantly violating various laws of the land is worth quoting, “We have plenty of laws and orders in our country, but no law and order! Lots of rules and laws but no rule of law!”. CR of course was not revealing any state secret. Aren’t we one of the most ‘legislated’ countries in the world? With a legacy of colonial Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code haven’t we enacted plenty more of laws and rules? Don’t we have archaic sedition laws which the British used to prosecute our freedom fighters? Aren’t the same laws being used now to prosecute writers, cartoonists, media/social media and other activists who dissent? One can go on; but the truth is that court decisions are no longer sacrosanct and people disobey them with utter contempt at the drop of a hat.

The Delhi Deepavali celebrations this year proved that people are free to give excuses for non implementation of Supreme Court verdicts. Culture, beliefs, traditions, religion, popular sentiments and politics seem beyond judicial processes and Contempt of Court. The arguments for court order not being obeyed range from, not being implementable, the power of public opinion and sentiments considered beyond judicial diktats. In all these, ruling parties and governments play an important role. It is indeed sad that in the recent weeks some leaders of the ruling party have criticized, if not abused, the Supreme Court for a verdict not acceptable to them- not the first such occasion, but then, who cares?

There are many Supreme Court judgments which are not being obeyed or implemented. Many of them have issues concerning religious practices or traditions or about ownership of worshipping places. Open defiance of apex court orders question the very dignity of the third pillar or estate of our constitutional institutions. But do,we the people of India care?

- Prof. T K Thomas, Senior Journalist.

( The views expressed above are those of the author.)