By Saud Amin Khan:
The Bill which amends the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, was first tabled in the Rajya Sabha in December 2012, and then sent to the Standing Committee on Labour for review. Recommendations were received from the civil society and a wide range of stakeholders submitted suggestions to the Committee. Through several consultations, it was impressed upon the Hon’ble Minister for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya the urgency to amend the Bill as per the report of the Standing Committee and the need to expedite its passing in both Houses of Parliament. The members of civil society were assured of the government’s intentions to achieve a complete ban on child labour through the passing of a stringent child labour law. However, what has taken form is distressing and will have a catastrophic effect on our children.
An already weak law has been weakened further. After thirty years of struggle and no progress, this amendment will further cripple our fight against child labour. According to the 2011 Census, India is home to 43.5 lakh child labourers. Independent studies by civil society organisations place the figure at an approximate 117 lakh. The acceptance of child labour in our society, on the pretext of the poor socio-economic conditions of families, implies a collective corruption of human conscience that decriminalises the act and also makes it a roadblock to inclusive democracy and sustainable development.
It is critical that we do not ignore the lacunas in this Bill and address them with utmost urgency, before it becomes a law to be enacted.
The government of India is suggesting putting a blanket ban on employment of children up to the age of 14 years, irrespective of the sector they work in. This reform links the age to that under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 and puts us on the track to align our legal framework with the provisions laid down in The United Nations Convention 138 on the minimum age of employment, which is fixed at 18 years. India is one of the very few countries in the world to have not ratified this convention.
Legislation and policies for the protection of child rights framed after the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 have defined a child as a person below 18 years. One of the main objectives of the amendment Bill was to ensure that the child labour law adheres to this uniform understanding of the child. The Standing Committee had recommended the same in the report. However, the proposed amendment continues to define a child as a person below the age of 14, thus, creating contrariety. Decades of painstaking progress by the judiciary has been neglected by the weak will of the legislature.
The Bill defines children between 14-18 years as adolescents and prohibits their involvement in hazardous occupations and processes except for in family-run establishments. However, children working in carpet manufacturing, glass furnaces, brick kilns and other hazardous occupations and processes are exempted from the ban. This is due to the reduction in the list of hazardous occupations and processes from the earlier list of 83 to merely three now.
For instance, a child can work in his uncle’s beedi making workshop every day after school and be outside the protection of law. The same child as per the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 is not allowed to purchase the beedi until he turns 18. The State had, as a guardian to minors, taken such a thought-out decision. Why is the interest and safety of our children falling second to the economic situation now?
These amendments defeat the purpose of the ban.
The ban also carries a proviso that children will be allowed to support their families in home-based work and family-run enterprises, during vacations and after school hours. When the list of hazardous occupations is reduced to three, taking into consideration the socio-economic conditions of these families, you will be able to comprehend that these children won’t be helping their family in household chores but in dangerous work processes such as construction business, manufacture of pesticides and slaughter-houses.
The Bill also leaves great scope for misinterpretation of family and family-run enterprises by not defining the terms. Family should be limited to closest of kin, namely, father, mother, brother, sister and a legal guardian. It has been observed that under the garb of the family name, uncles (the so-called Mamas and Chachas) exploit the children and, often, sell them to traffickers for sexual and physical slavery. Thus, this ambiguity in the terms and limited list of hazardous labour will prove detrimental to the protection of many children in situations of exploitative labour.
On analysing the data provided by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an organisation working at the grassroots level for the rescue and rehabilitation of children, we can determine the extent of how this shall take place. Between January 2010 and December 2014, BBA rescued 5,254 children from situations of exploitative labour. 21% of those below 14 years were employed with family members. 83% of all the children were rescued from home-based units; under the proposed revisions. With no prescribed or practical method to determine relation to the child, rescuing these children will be a bigger challenge as the employers can now, with legal protection, claim to be the child’s relatives.
We also stand witness to less than one percent conviction rate under the Child Labour Act in several states, which is beyond comprehension. India ranks 27th worldwide and is classified as ‘extreme risk’ by the study conducted by Maplecroft on the prevalence of child labour. With 6.5% of the world’s child labourers, we have had hardly any jail terms for the offenders under the Act and even the fines imposed have rarely been collected. Now, the proposed amendment will make the act of employing a child labourer a compoundable offence. Which means that under the jurisdiction of the District Magistrate, an offender can pay a penalty and be let off. Simply put, this means that no offender will now go to jail. Thus paving the way for employers, small and medium-sized enterprises and multinationals alike to employ children without major concerns.
As a child-rights activist, I am bothered by the way this has shaped up and been received. It is a decent step towards the complete elimination of child labour in the country because the government has finally declared its intentions of bringing children out of labour. However, by leaving such loopholes in the drafting, these intentions become questionable.
The implementation of the law is key. In this regard, we need more robust laws and stringent policing which cannot be misused to the advantage of corporates and business houses. The Make in India campaign must not thrive on the sweat and toil of our children. Likewise, we must not allow for children to work with or for families. When the nature of engagement is not specifically defined but left at ‘helping’ the ‘family’, children would be working late into the night or after school hours with their uncles and be unable to balance education with labour. Their education is fundamental to the growth of this country and the provisions in the bill provided for ease of work for poor families are in contradiction to this principle.
I respect the work and values of Indian Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. He is the highest moral authority we have on the issue of children and their rights. Mr. Satyarthi has rescued more than 85,000 children from labour and exploitative conditions through raid and rescue operations. Though the countless number of children he and his organisation have saved from these conditions, either through advocacy and policy making is unknown. He states that “politics must not be aimed at the next election, but the next generation”. Our parliament must reflect the same spirit and vision in the new Bill.
We are in our 70th year of Independence and the excuse of ‘socio-economic’ conditions of families seems shallow now. Is it because we haven’t made substantial progress, or are we setting a political stage to use and misuse our children for the benefit of business houses?
I hope that we can create an uproar regarding this as our children need us more than ever. Every campaign needs a nucleus. As the largest section of the society, the youth, us, we need to raise pertinent questions and promote the delivery of justice to the most oppressed and vulnerable – children.
Ask yourselves, “Does the government really want to ban child labour?“
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