On May 13, 2015, the Union Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister gave its approval to move official amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation), Act, 1986, which bans employment of children below 14 years of age in all occupations and processes. The amendment to the Act allowed work in non hazardous family businesses, entertainment and sports activities (except circus) after school hours or during vacations, without compromising the education and safety of the working children.
The Cabinet has made these exceptions within the blanket prohibition of child labour considering the large number of children in India who help their parents in various activities such as farming and handicrafts. The reason given for these exceptions is that such activities may help children learn the basics of these occupations. The Government calls it a historic step which will help strike a balance between the need of education and the reality of their socio-economic conditions.
However, this ‘historic step’ by the Government continues to face stiff opposition by child rights activists from all over the country. “This means we are comfortable with different destinies for children depending on where they’re born. So we’re comfortable with the fact that children of the poor will work after school.” said Harsh Mandar in an interview with the Indian Express.
Interestingly, a short while before this amendment was made; Kailash Satyarthi became the first Indian ever to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and ironically Satyarthi’s work has been dedicated on eradicating the problem of child labour. Satyarthi gave up his job as an electrical engineer to dedicate himself to protecting and advancing child rights for over three decades now, freeing 80,000 children from more than 144 countries and giving them a new hope of life. He has advocated for stricter laws against child trafficking and labour and has met with mixed success so far. Mr. Satyarthi’s group works with legal enforcement agencies to rescue child labourers and help them rebuild their lives. The shelters run by the organization offer schooling and teach children about their rights.
“Satyarthi rescued children and sent them to schools while this amendment perils children from schools and sends them to work. This amendment is a threat to the Right to Education”, says Ilma Iqbal, a law student from Aligarh Muslim University.
Although we do not have the latest data on the number of children occupied in hazardous industries based on the 2011 Census, some estimates suggest that a sizeable number continue to work in banned occupations and processes. Employment of children in roadside eateries and motels in excessive heat and cold, which have been added to the list of banned occupations in recent years, also continues.
Eleven year old Preeti and her younger brother Rahul alongwith their uncle Babu and father Ghanshyaam have divided the work among themselves of their family-run dhaba near Azamgarh-Mau Bypass road. Babu sits at the counter and takes orders of the customer and his elder brother Ghanshyaam manages the kitchen work. Preeti helps his father while Rahul serves the dishes. When asked about their studies, Preeti replies, “We used to study at home. Baba (her father) had bought both of us some books and crayons.” Her father Ghanshyaam agrees that it’s wrong to make his children work at this age. He further says, “I too want them to study but if I will send them to school then I’ll have to hire two workers, who, in any case, will be children. Children work at low wages. We can’t afford workers but we need workers.”
The amendment is in direct conflict with the Right to Education, argue activists, who believe that this will reverse the gains of years of fighting for the rights of children. It is a retrograde step in many ways. The amendment doesn’t ensure the paths to maintain balance between work and study and even if it does, the mere existence of legislation does not guarantee follow through and enforcement.
Danyal Abdullah, another law student, says, “If mere existence of legislation guarantees the enforcement, the numerous existing legislation that address child labour in India, ranging from article 24 of the Constitution to various industrial legislations such as the Factories Act, the Mines Act, the Plantations Labour Act, which forbid child labour in hazardous activities or prescribe terms and conditions of employment of child workers, would have been sufficient to tackle the problem.” It is not realistic to expect the recent amendments to legislation to deliver significant gains in the eradication of child labour, given the magnitude of problems and its complexities, and the deficiencies in legal enforcement and regulatory capacity.
Child Labour in India has barely been regarded as a socio-political problem in our public discussions and discourse. The urban elite has mostly had a patronising attitude towards child labourers, conducting cloth donation drives and arranging for some elementary education for them, but never bothering to ask the more critical questions as to why children continue to work as child labourers under the watch of state agencies or why hasn’t any proper rehabilitation mechanism been in place for them yet.
Things are quite similar at Aligarh Muslim University where every canteen almost has a child serving tea to the educated class of the society. The University which is being listed as one of the nation’s best institution could never actually get hold of this problem. The institution does have several organizations and volunteers who work tirelessly to curb this social injustice but no concrete results have been achieved so far. Everybody (the students in particular) while admitting that it is an evil practice also never miss a chance to shout at these little kids.
Talking to a boy working in one of the several canteens in the university, I was shocked to know that he had to work eighteen hours a day for an ordinary wage of twenty-five hundred, a month. On my repeated insistence to talk, he agreed. I wanted to know the reason why he was working, to which he innocently replied, “My parents passed away when I was eight. I had to look upon my younger brothers. I needed money and that is why I work here.”
“The Government has banned child labour years ago but it is still common in every region of the country. The reason behind it is that though the Government has banned child labour, it has failed to provide any economic substitute or proper rehabilitation for those working as child labourers or their families. These children need money and people need workers at low wages”, opined a professor.
The amendment now provides stiffer penalties to the employers and if these employers ever stopped hiring these little kids on work, many of them would die of hunger. The ruling establishment despite all its self-appreciation has not been able to find a solution to the problem; its amendments would only go on to entrench the issue further.
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