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Amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 proscribe employing children below the age of 14. But exemptions in the new law render it open to gross misuse

By Ajith Pillai

On paper, the amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 passed by the Rajya Sabha on July 19 and cleared a week later by the Lok Sabha look progressive. It bans employing children under 14 years and prohibits adolescents between 14-18 years from working in notified hazardous industries.

Further, the new law stipulates harsher punishments for employing children in    violation of the Act with a fine between Rs 20,000-Rs 50,000 plus a six-month jail term for first time offenders and a one- to three-year jail term for those who repeat   the offence.

If the amended act is a step forward, as projected by the government, why are child-rights activists almost unanimous in their criticism? It seems the devil is in the details of the amended law. For example, the ban on employing children below 14 years comes with terms and conditions that make it willy-nilly legal to employ them after school hours and vacations in family businesses and enterprises. Similarly, the number of hazardous industries where adolescents and children cannot be employed has been cut from 83 under the old law to just 3 in the amended Act, further opening the doors to employing those below 18.

Children may work after school hours. But who will ensure that they actually go to school? Photo: UNI
Children may work after school hours. But who will ensure that they actually go to school? Photo: UNI

Seen from this perspective, the new law has several provisos which are regressive. As former bureaucrat and rights activists Harsh Mander put it across in a signed column: “…on closer scrutiny, we discover the same pattern as many other pronouncements of this government vis-a-vis the poor: The reality of what is being offered is the reverse of what appears on paper.” For example, he notes that under the amended law, hazardous industries have been narrowed down to those which are categorized as such for adult workers “without recognizing the specific vulnerabilities of children”.

What are the apprehensions and reservations about the new law from field workers who interact with children on the ground? Chetna (Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action) is a Delhi-based NGO which has been working for child empowerment for the last 14 years. It believes that the new law will only serve to endorse child labor and does not address the core issues of children who are exploited from the age of five or six.

Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna spelt out the core apprehensions to India Legal: “By allowing children below 14 to work in a family business or enterprise, the law has opened the doors to exploitation. What does family business mean? It includes establishments and services run by the parents and siblings as well as the extended family of the mother and father of the child. This is very vague as most exploited children are tutored to say that they work for some chacha (uncle) or the other when complaints are registered with the police. Under the new law, such work is permissible and in any case, we don’t have a system by which the police will go out of its way to verify if the DNA of the child and his employer match. Most police stations, we fear, will not entertain complaints of child exploitation once the child says he works with the consent of his parents for a relative.”child labour

But will the new law which bans children from working during school hours encourage parents to send their children to school? It may not, fear child rights activists. Notes Gupta: “As many of us see it, many of the children will register with schools but may not actually attend classes. The fact that a child is registered with a school will serve literally as a certificate to work. The police will henceforth not entertain complaints of exploitation by an employer if a child is registered with a school and is working in a family enterprise which could be almost anything provided it’s not hazardous. In the months to come, you will see a dramatic increase in the number of children under 14 joining schools but whether they attend classes is another question.”

As things stand, several government-run schools across the country face the threat of closure because of lack of students. In fact, schools are known to approach child rights groups to help them in getting students enrolled at least for the record. The amended Child Labour Act will help shore up government statistics vis-à-vis number of students admitted to a school.

Chetna is not alone in expressing its concern. Child Rights and You (CRY) has also put on record its reservations. The organization’s CEO, Puja Marwaha, has articulated this position in the media: “Allowing children to work in family enterprises is likely to have far-reaching implications for their education and learning outcomes, as well as their health and overall development. These children face issues of inattentiveness, fatigue and lesser attendance at school and lack of playtime with peers in and after school. Are they even left with an option to let go of their economic roles, so essential to their family’s survival? Working children remain at great risk of dropping out of school.”

According to her, the amended law which is “based on the premise that education and work for children can go hand in hand” goes against the spirit of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) 2009. Marwaha also sees little merit in the government justification for exempting family businesses from the ban because, as labor minister Bandaru Dattatreya informed the Rajya Sabha, in a family run enterprise, the employer-employee relationship is not typically what one normally sees and is better bonded.

CRY’s studies have revealed that children working in the unorganized sector like brick kilns and small-scale industrial units (both family run) are overworked and subjected to countless health hazards. Neither do they go to schools. In fact, an analysis of the 2011 census data by CRY reveals that 1.4 million child laborers are illiterate even at the very basic level and cannot write their names.

There are other dangers as well that come with legitimizing children employed in family occupations: it reinforces the caste system and hierarchy since family business would mean, for example, that a mochi’s (cobbler’s) son will continue in his father’s footsteps and a beedi worker’s son will pursue the same trade that runs in his family.

Incidentally, children largely work in home-based units involved in beedi rolling, glass manufacturing, carpet-making, zari and embroidery work, gems and jewelry, agarbatti and papad-making, packing and sticking labels, handicrafts, etc. A sizeable number also work in the farm sector and in the eatery business, while others sell wares on the streets or eke out a living by begging.

Immediately after the amended law was passed by parliament, child rights activist and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi reportedly made this observation: “The definition of family and family enterprises is flawed. This bill uses Indian family values to justify economic exploitation of children. It is misleading the society by blurring the lines between learning in a family and working in a family enterprise. Children of any age, under the garb of family enterprises, can now legally work in brick kilns, slaughter houses, beedi factories, glass furnaces and other hazardous places. Children have been failed again.”

But now that the law has been passed and approved by President Pranab Mukherjee, little can be done but to ensure that the Act is implemented in letter and spirit. That will be a task that child rights activists will have to carry out since the government, according to rights groups, has virtually abdicated all its responsibility to the children by introducing regressive amendments in the Act.

The consensus among activists is that it was an opportunity missed. CRY’s viewpoint is that “the government’s mission of transforming India would have been strengthened had it banned child labor in its entirety, without any exceptions. The child labor Act should have been viewed as a social legislation rather than just another labor law.”

Or, as Shantha Sinha, former head of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights summed it up in her column: “It is a shame that our parliamentarians have not risen to the occasion and opposed the proviso for allowing children to work after school hours and genuinely release all children, including adolescents, from the labor force. Ending child labor once and for all and making child labor part of India’s history still remains a mirage.”

Lead picture: Children working in family based enterprises. Learning the ropes or losing innocence? Photo: UNI

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