In what could be a regressive step for our country, the Modi Government has approved a proposal for an amendment in the Child Labour Prohibition Act which will put children back to exploitative employment. The amendment has stirred up a lot of controversy. While some look at it as improvement, I see it as an inadequate law that flies in the face of years of progress made in the field of child labour.
Although the new law maintains the complete ban on child labour, it will allow children below the age of 14 to work in “select family enterprises if it doesn’t hamper their education”. Basically, the ban will not apply if children are helping the family in fields, forests and/or home based work, after school hours or during vacations. According to the labour ministry, this new norm also applies to the entertainment and sports industry. The amendment insists on stricter punishment for those who violate the law, which, the government hopes, will act as a safeguard for children.
The phrase ‘family enterprises’ has provoked suspicion, and rightly so, from child labour activists who contend that it stands for all sectors that employ child labour. It is no secret that employees sometimes fake relations with children in order to prevent prosecution. Since the cost of hiring them is also much lower than adults, it makes them vulnerable to exploitation. This new provision would make it easier for employers to hire child labourers. All the employer has to ensure is that the child has the minimum required attendance in school. Moreover, the term family business is open to interpretation.
The objective of this amendment according to the ministry, is to help children nurture a ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’, while keeping in mind the ‘social fabric’ of India. It seems that the government has forgotten that India is a poor country, and the families that send their children to work at such a young age think that they would contribute to the family’s subsistence.
As a result of this amendment, children from economically weaker sections will go back to work, all in the name of contributing to ‘family enterprises’. The amendment can also mean that girl children from underprivileged families will be forced to prioritize housework over school work. As it is, there is an obvious disparity in the male-female literacy rate; 82% and 65% respectively.
The amendment is directly in contrast with the Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009, which guarantees education to every child. According to the census of India, there has been a drop in the number of child labourers in India from 1.26 crore in 2001 to 43.53 lakh in 2011. This decline owes credit to the RTE which promises free and compulsory education to all aged between 6-14 years.
You don’t have to be in school to know that there is a direct link between illiteracy and poverty. If children don’t receive education, they are going to be sucked back into the labour market. Children at that age are meant to be in schools, not in workspaces, not even ‘family enterprises’.
It is difficult to correlate the picture presented above with the present government’s obsession with the ‘Acche Din’ campaign. What we need is a total ban on all kinds of child labour, find a way to deal with poverty separately, and maximise child education. In its attempt to address the problem of poverty, the government might inadvertently lead the vicious cycle of illiteracy and poverty to continue.
How is a nation going to develop if its future is compelled to choose between school and ‘home work’?