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A Child’s Place Is In School, Not At Work: On Child Labour In India

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Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a five-article series named ‘The Tales of Toil’ that discusses and highlights the realities, needs and interests of the working class in India.

A child’s place is in school, not work. This simple idea stares us back in our face, veiled by years of neglect, seventy years after our Independence. Elimination of child labour has also been an area of grave concern in India. The 2011 national census of India found the total number of child labourers to be a staggering 10.1 million, making 3.89% children in the age-group of 5-14 employed in labour! The child labour problem is not unique to only India, with around 217 million child-labourers all over the world today!

As per the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986:

“No child shall be employed or permitted to work in any of the occupations set forth in Part A of the Schedule or in any workshop wherein any of the processes set forth in Part B of the Schedule is carried on:
Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any workshop wherein any process is carried on by the occupier with the aid of his family or to any school established by, or receiving assistance or recognition from, Government.”
You can read the occupations in Part A or the processes in Part B here. The Act also calls for the setting up of a Child Labour Technical Advisory Committee that shall advise the Central Government for the purpose of addition of occupations and processes to the Schedule. Even with all these provisions in place, the state of children in many parts of the country is dismal. Let us look more closely at these realities of child-labourers in India.

Realities Of Child Labour In India

Even though the Indian Constitution prohibits the employment of children in hazardous occupations as a Fundamental Right under Article 24, which states that

“Prohibition of employment of children in factories, etc.
No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment.”

Yet children continue to be used as members of the labour force in such kinds of occupations. In terms of numbers, India has one of the largest labour-force of child-labourers in the world. Most child-labourers in India are employed in agriculture and in the informal sector, in various (oft-menial and/or dangerous) jobs.

UNICEF has suggested in the past that poverty is the biggest cause of child labour. In rural and impoverished parts of India, children often have no real and meaningful alternative. Families see them as an extra earning hand as well. For some families, income from the labour of children of the household is between 25-40% of the household income! Schools and other public education infrastructure, besides good teachers, are also often unavailable in such areas. Child labour, in such a scenario, becomes the unnatural result of these overlapping causes. Some scholars also suggest that the complex labour laws in the country, along with the structure (and structural inflexibility) of India’s labour market, the size of India’s informal economy, inability of certain industries to scale up and lack of modern manufacturing infrastructure, could be majorly contributing to the demand and acceptability of child-labour.

Market forces do not make it any easier for children. Major private players such as multinational companies have earned infamy by employing child labourers for various tasks in their production lines. Back in 2003, Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Monsanto came under fire for employing child labourers. As per Dr. Davuluri Venkateswarlu:

“An estimated number of 25,000 children, mostly girls, work an average of ten to thirteen hours a day for Hindustan Lever, while around 17,000 children work for Monsanto and their Indian subsidiary Mahyco. These children get no education, earn less than 40 Eurocents (Rs. 20) a day and are exposed to poisonous pesticides like Endosulphan during their work. More than 11,000 children work under similar conditions for the multinationals Syngenta (Swiss), Advanta (Dutch-British) and Proagro (owned by Bayer of Germany).”

If the agency of the free market destroys the lives of children, is that a good thing? Do we not need stricter laws and regulations to make sure that this does not happen? In fact, the Indian government, over the years, has introduced a number of laws and regulations on this front. Let us see what they are and what is still lacking, in the next section.

Initiatives By Government Of India For Child Labour

The Government of India has been committed to addressing this issue over the recent past. Considering the nature and magnitude of the problem, the Government is following a robust multi-pronged strategy to tackle the problem, which as the Ministry of Labour and Employment puts it is as follows:

It comprises statutory and legislative measures, rescue and rehabilitation, universal elementary education along with social protection & poverty alleviation and employment generation schemes. The objective is to create an environment where families are not compelled to send their children to work. Government has adopted an approach to withdraw and rehabilitate working children from all occupations and processes.

We already have The National Policy on Child Labour that was declared in August 1987. The Policy addresses the complex issue of child labour in a comprehensive and integrated manner. The Action Plan mainly consists of

  • Legislative action plan: The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Act of 2016 covers complete prohibition on employment or work of children below 14 years of age in all occupations and processes. There is the linking of the age of the prohibition of employment with the age for free and compulsory education under Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009. There is also a  prohibition on employment of adolescents in hazardous occupations or processes, besides creating stricter punishment for the employers contravening the provisions of the Act.
  • Project based action (in areas of high concentration of Child Labour): In pursuance of National Child Labour Policy, the Central Sector Scheme called National Child Labour Project (NCLP) Scheme was established in 1988 to rehabilitate children rescued from child labour. It is at present sanctioned in 280 districts in the country.
    Under the Scheme, working children are identified using child labour surveys, withdrawn from work and put into the special training centers so as to provide them with an environment and facilities to subsequently join mainstream education system. In these Special Training Centers, the children are provided stipend, formal education, mid-day meals, vocational training and regular health check-up.
  • Focus on general development programmes for the benefit of the families of Child Labour

Despite the robust policy and institutional guidelines and framework, the challenges posed by lack of knowledge dispersion, implementation and monitoring and accountability of institutional mechanisms at various levels along with age-old attitudes towards child labour makes India one of the most fertile grounds for employment of children. The Government of India has framed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) creating a way for monitoring agencies and individuals to ensure complete prohibition of child labour, and launched it in September 2017. What we now need is proper implementation of all these measures.

Ministry of Labour & Employment has also developed an online portal called PENCil (Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour) that was made operation from September 2017. The purpose of this portal is to provide a mechanism for both enforcement of the legislative provisions against child labour in the country and effective implementation of the National Child Labour Project (NCLP). Even though NCLP is a central Sector Scheme, what is needed is the active involvement and coordination with State Governments to get the desired impact of the rehabilitative scheme. What is also needed is a certain convergence of the Project with other  departments both vertically and horizontally. PENCil has components like

  • Complaint Corner
  • State Government Corner
  • Sections on the National Child Labour Project (NCLP)
  • Child Tracking System

Now complaint of child labour can be electronically registered on PENCil to the concerned District Nodal Officers (DNOs). It is important we do all that we can, since as Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi said

We as the governments, workers, employers and civil society must declare a war on child labour. This war cannot be won without strong, committed, coherent, and well-resourced worldwide movement. Equally needed is a genuine and active coordination between intergovernmental agencies at the highest level.

Surely, the government has taken steps to counter this pervasive problem. However, I believe the problem lies in implementation and enforcement. One can still see the odd boy in a dhaba or a girl in a factory, toiling away in an age when the mysteries of the world and knowledge of things, far and wide, should be their centre of attention and interest at that age. We need to have a more vocal civil society too, which stands up to such instances of child labour and report these cases to the facilities made available by the government pronto.

In Conclusion

I believe that progress in the present that stifles our future is a futile exercise; a vain pursuit that is as parochial or short-sighted in its conception as any idea or move could be. Children of the nation hold potential and promises for a better future for the country. We need to ensure that all children are kept away from the clutches of exploitative industries and encumbering informal-sector jobs, from toiling away in a field and sowing seeds for a good harvest to fill the coffers of distant multinational companies. This has to stop! We need to work with the triumvirate of good education facilities, employment generation (along-with poverty reduction) and awareness building on the rights of children, besides using punitive measures for those who employ children, especially in hazardous occupations. Every child deserves a good education, good amenities and a good future. If we can just give every child that, our nation can truly envision becoming the Golden Sparrow again!

 

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