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INTERVIEW: Children Are De-Prioritized Because They Cannot Vote, Says CEO Of CRY

06/05/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Sunil, 14, loads a brick onto the back of a truck at a laterite brick mine in Ratnagiri district, about 360km (224 miles) south of Mumbai, April 14, 2011. Sunil is paid two Indian rupees ($0.04) per brick and carries an average of 100 bricks out of the mine per day. Each brick costs between 10-14 rupees ($0.22-$0.31), and weighs around 40 kg. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS)

Founded in 1979, CRY (Child Rights and You) has been active as a pressure group to restore children's rights in the country. In an interview with Dipin Damodharan, its chief executive officer Puja Marwaha speaks on the proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act as well as concerns that marginalized children remain at the bottom of the government's priority list.

There's a strong view that the proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act, 1986, allowing children below the age of 14 to work in family enterprises and business are contrary to their fundamental right to attend school until the age of 14. How do you look at this?

The Child Labour Amendment Bill was brought primarily to align itself with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. One of the stated objectives of the Bill to amend the law is to ensure that all children between the ages of six and 14 years are in schools rather than at workplaces. The Bill, thus, aims to synchronise the two laws. However, certain exceptions laid down in the Bill to amend the law legitimise children working for their family and in family enterprises. While the government justifies its position by saying that the amendment is striking a balance between the need for education for a child and socio-economic reality. This remains highly contentious.

The government's argument that "children help their parents...and learn basics of occupations" defeats the whole purpose of protecting children from exploitative labour.

The government's argument that "children help their parents... and while helping they learn basics of occupations" completely defeats the whole purpose of protecting children from exploitative labour. In the absence of adequate regulatory and institutional capacity to ensure child welfare, child workers in informal enterprises and family settings could be left unprotected and subject to exploitation. We, at CRY, believe childhood is a time where children need to be provided with basic rights including education and safety and security from all possible kinds of abuse and exploitation.

A child's right to leisure, recreation, the notion of childhood as a safe space, end up at risk when they take up 'economic roles' in early life. The Bill assumes that education and work may go together. In reality, children who combine school and work, often work for long hours after school, resulting in irregular attendance, affecting their learning outcomes or causing them to permanently drop out. In our submission to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, CRY has pointed out the potential risk of misuse by contractors in the guise of training or getting assistance from the child. CRY has also highlighted the threat of perpetuating the age-old caste system and rigid social structures when children are bound to their traditional family occupations.

CRY has highlighted the threat of perpetuating the age-old caste system and rigid social structures when children are bound to their traditional family occupations.

When it comes to the issue of child labour, where does India stand?

Despite legislation, child labour continues to flourish in both rural and urban India. There are 10.13 million children working in India between the ages of 5 and 14 years (Census 2011) which has decreased marginally from 12.67 million (Census 2001). Three decades after a nationwide ban on child labour in hazardous industries was introduced, over 33 million children, aged between 5 and 18, continue to work in places ranging from agricultural fields to bidi factories and small-scale industries. Two important notifications to the existing Child Labour Prohibition (And Regulation) Act 1986 came into effect in 2006, banning the employment of children below the age of 14 as domestic servants and in the hospitality trade such as in roadside dhabas, restaurants, hotels, motels. However the concern is that despite the legislation and these important notifications, India has not been successful in keeping children away from work. In fact in the 5-9 years category, there was a 37% increase in number of child labourers from 1.8 million in Census 2001 to 2.5 million in 2011.

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Puja Marwaha

[I]n the 5-9 years category, there was a 37% increase in number of child labourers from 1.8 million in Census 2001 to 2.5 million in 2011.

Do you think there's a need to strengthen awareness campaigns on child labour?

Poverty, unemployment, food insecurity compels children to take up 'adult economic roles' early in their lives. There is dire need to adopt a multi-pronged strategy with respect to raising awareness on issue of child labour. We also need to constantly work on having robust mechanisms for reporting as well as a rescue and rehabilitation. There is a need to change mindsets of people who believe it is okay to hire children as domestic help. In order to achieve this there is a need to make them understand why it is not okay to hire children or why it is not okay for children to work. There is also a requirement to work with employers and sensitize them and make them aware about penalties under the legislation. With this there is also a need for more and more people--especially youth--to join hands in pledging not to employ child labour and raise their voice against any such activity they witness.

Generating awareness to deal with the issue from the root cause level is also fundamental. The State should ensure that issues of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity are addressed in order to prevent children from entering the labour force.

There is a need to change mindsets of people who believe it is okay to hire children as domestic help.

india factory

Marginalized children are at the bottom of the priority list of our authorities, or that's what UNICEF India Child Protection chief Joachim Theis said recently. What's your take on this?

Children constitute over a third of India's population of a 1.21 billion and yet their issues remain largely invisible and de-prioritized as they do not constitute the vote bank; they do not figure in electoral outcomes--an issue such as inflation could make or break a government but the fact that every second child in the country is malnourished does not have such an impact on the course or consequence of elections and governments. This is also evident in the way we invest for about 40% of our population. In 2016-17, the share of the child budget stands at 3.32 % of the Union Budget, with the absolute amount increasing from ₹58,016.72 crore (Budget Estimate 2015-16) to ₹65,758.45 (Budget Estimate 2016-17).

The continued prevalence of child marriage has been a matter of great concern and a gross violation of the rights of the child. Over the last 15years, the incidence of child marriage in India has declined just by 11%, which means slower than 1% every year. Child Marriage takes place in the midst of a complex social arrangement involving multiple stakeholders in the background of various age-old socio-cultural, religious practices and beliefs. In the name of 'societal pressure' we are today sacrificing millions of girl children; they can no longer enjoy their rights as children. It is still a 'socially acceptable' arrangement.

[A]n issue such as inflation could make or break a government but the fact that every second child in the country is malnourished does not have such an impact...

All children have a right to care and protection; to develop and grow to their full potential, regardless of their social and economic situation. We must not forget that they have rights too--an individual becomes a citizen with citizenship rights from the day of birth. Access to early childcare, education, nutrition, health and protection is essential for their positive development and is a right to which they are entitled. In the backdrop of big issues, children-related issues may seem insignificant and it is precisely this perception that we want to challenge. Poor performance across critical child rights indicators is not an insignificant issue. It is in fact is a very important issue, if not THE important issue.

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