There has been a passionate response to the Amendment to the Child Labour Act, passed by the Cabinet, allowing children below 14 years to work in certain non-hazardous settings - family-owned enterprises and the entertainment industry. Also, while the original Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 banned employment of children below 14 in "only 18 hazardous industries". The Amendment passed this May completely bans children (below 18) from working in any hazardous industry.
In addition, the Amendment stipulates stricter punishment for employers violating these conditions. While a parent will not be penalised for the first violation (only for subsequent ones), an employer would be liable for punishment at the first instance. The penalty for employers has been increased from the existing Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000. A subsequent offence for employing any child or adolescent in an illegal industry will result in a minimum imprisonment of a year, extendable up to three. The government believes that defining, allowing and forbidding the employment of children in certain types of industries will safeguard children and act as a deterrent to employers.
"Most of us barely notice how heavily children below are exploited for labour in India."
Most of us barely notice how heavily children below are exploited for labour in India. Be it the pint-sized chaiwallahs at railway stations, shoe polishers on pavements, waiters, domestic workers, agricultural labourers - working children are a common sight. The appalling reality is that many children bear the burden of earning a livelihood and supporting their family. It is the only way they can survive and, perhaps, attain the rudiments of an education. Particularly vulnerable are children who are abandoned, runaways, on the streets, and not identified by the State to belong to one of the two categories - in Need of Care & Protection or in Conflict with the Law.
PROBLEMS WITH THE AMENDMNT
1. The definition of "hazardous"
The problem with this Amendment is not that it allows children to work. It is more than that. First, In India, it is extremely hard to empirically define what is "hazardous" and what is "non-hazardous".
This Amendment also allows children to work in "family business" which is equally ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. It is easy to use child labour in hazardous settings and argue that it is non-hazardous. Industries work on the basis of procurement, production and supply. If a child works in the supply side of a hazardous industry (selling), or on the production side (say, with heavy machinery) in a non-hazardous industry - how would it be tackled, unless the industry is explicitly defined as one of the two?
Earlier, only 18 industries were defined as hazardous. Now, the definitions will need to be expanded to all, with details and precision for each.
2. It does not adequately address education
This Amendment, in principle, goes against the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which mandates the state to ensure free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. If a child is allowed to legally work in a non-hazardous industry, would he or she be able to meet all the demands of a school education? And what is the intervention if she does not? To what limit can a child (below 14) be stretched, physically and mentally, between education and employment? A condition set forth in this Amendment is that children should work only after school hours or during vacations. But meeting this condition is easier in theory than in practice.
"When it comes to children - child labour, protection, welfare, and rights - it would be silly to paint it in black or white."
3. It sends out a negative message
While the Government believes that such an Amendment can protect children working in industries in contravention to the law, it also does send out a very negative message. And that simply being, it is now legally OK for children below 14 to be employed. In the last decade, India has seen a plummet in the number of child labourers (from 12.6 million down to 4.3 million). This is believed to be because of enrollment in schools. With this Amendment, education, while mandated can easily become an option and not a compulsion, especially for girls, who because of social norms already demonstrate a high dropout rate in schools.
WHY WE NEED TO CHANGE MORE THAN THE LAW
Let me clearly assert, Child Labour is by no means a desired situation. No child should voluntarily or forcefully be pushed into employment at the cost of his education or even childhood. However, the problem in India is complex. When it comes to children - child labour, protection, welfare, and rights - it would be silly to paint it in black or white. The stakeholders and situations at play are subjective, and numerous. State machinery and institutions, parents and dependent siblings, family circumstances and structure, societal and class norms (where gender and caste play a central role), education and accessibility, the child's mental and physical condition, specific situations - each has a say and role in the life of a child, before the child. No two cases are the same with respect to child labour and protection.
"What we really need to demand are bigger, more tangible structures with respect to children."
Child labour takes place in the private confines of homes, and in the public eye, across the country. This Amendment makes allowances for certain realities. Is this enough? No.
What we really need to demand are bigger, more tangible structures with respect to children. We need a robust child protection and welfare setup, effective implementation of child policies, augmented budgets for schemes for children, an impartial juvenile justice system, better reformation homes, trained and permanent staff, and so on.
Simultaneously, the number of schools, the enrollment, dropout and graduation rates, the quality of teachers, the infrastructure in schools - each needs to me monitored and analysed.
While we want to wish away child labour, we also need to wish for things that can be changed with simple policy planning and amendments, and that go a long way in favour of a child.
This Amendment is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. There are multiple loopholes, and flaws in it. But its provisions are better than the previous law. Opposing such an Amendment is right in principle and in signal. But does it really do anything, when everything that exists before and after the law is often dysfunctional and neglected?
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