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We failed yet again
India amended its Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. A 2016 amendment bill was passed in the Upper House on July 19 and in the Lower House on July 27. Various newspaper reports suggested that around 37 Members of Parliament spoke during the debate. Many opposed certain contents of the Bill. There was a fair amount of opposition from the civil society working on the issue of child rights as well.
While amending the old Child Labour law is definitely a welcome step, the question remains if these amendments will ensure the rights of children and child labourers. Though the government says yes, the answer is not that simple.
Primarily, the amendment bans employment of all children below 14 years of age across all sectors. But it brings in two exclusions which are regressive in nature and that’s where we fail to protect the rights of our children and child labourers.
First, the amendment excludes children who are engaged in family enterprises (these enterprises shouldn’t be hazardous of course) or help their families, after school hours or during vacations. The government’s hypothesis is that education and work for such children can go hand in hand and they can learn new skills and so, therefore, can be excluded. Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s remark while defending this Amendment was outright appalling. He said, “In a Kirana shop, if there is a mother and child running it and the mother steps out for moment, who sits there? It’s the child”.
But isn’t this a very narrow way of looking at the issue of child labour? Are we not defining a complex social problem in a very simplistic manner? The minister’s view certainly reflects it.
According to 2011 Census, there are over 82 lakh children between 5-14 years who are engaged in labour activities. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are the top five states which have the most number of children engaged in labour activities. Odisha is ranked 12th with 2.5 lakh child labourers. Though these are official figures (where numbers are likely to be suppressed), yet it reflects a tragic situation. It is tragic especially in the context of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which the minister tried linking it with the Child Labour Amendment Act in his speech.
Spotting a child labourer is not that difficult. In urban spaces, they are near our homes working in garages, close to our offices working in kirana shops (the kind the minister mentioned), and in the roadside dhabas and hotels. In rural areas, they help their parents in household work, take the cattle out for grazing, and also take care of younger siblings in the family. Most of the time, they do not have an employer-employee relationship as they work within the family supporting it.
The new amendment permits these activities if the child is going to school. But it is often the opposite. In fact these very activities are the reason why children drop out from school and why the retention rate is low. It is also the reason why children perform poorly in their studies. In most cases, it is the family which is responsible for engaging children in these labour activities.
Therefore, the big question is how can the very reason responsible for the drop out of children be excluded from the amendment?
The second exclusion in the amendment are children who work as artists in an audio-visual entertainment industry, including advertisement, films, television serials or any such other entertainment or sports activities except the circus; however subject to such conditions and safety measures, as may be prescribed and provided that such work does not affect the school education of the child. This is also a dubious move. Ranjana Das working on gender and development issues with Oxfam India says that “The appointment of children in entertainment industry even with their continuation in school is not a welcome step. We must not forget that entertainment industry as any other industry exhibits the same labour exploitation as any other industry and added to that brings in subtle sexism which may adversely impact adolescent girls and also boys in many cases.”
The amendment further defines adolescents as being between the age of 14-18 years and their employment is stated to be prohibited in hazardous occupations and processes. But the list of ‘hazardous occupations and processes’ have been slashed down to just three – mining, inflammable substances and hazardous process under the Factories Act, 1948. In the earlier Act of 1986, there were 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes which were prohibited. It is difficult to fathom how the hazardous activities in the previous Act became non-hazardous in the succeeding Act. One could only take a wild stab that perhaps some sort of market forces were at work. This Amendment means that children above 14 years of age will be allowed to be engaged in trades like cinder picking, transport of passengers, automobile works, glass and fiber industries, hotels, tea shops, spas and recreational centers, firework shops, as domestic servants, and so on and so forth. These are clearly unsafe spaces for children.
But not all is lost. One, the creation of Child and Adolescent Rehabilitation Fund is a positive move. Initial reports suggest that the Fund will be constituted for one or more districts, in each state, for the rehabilitation of the child or adolescent rescued. The Act itself will provide for a fund to carry out rehabilitation activities. Two, though not very stringent but punitive provisions for violators and regular offenders will definitely instil some fear.
But the larger question is if two good moves should justify one bad step. We cannot take lightly, matters that concerns 40 per cent of our population. Though passed by the parliament, a voice is definitely building up and should continue to be raised, against these provisions of the act.
After all children are children and we should not do to other children what we do not do to our own.
Jitendra Rath, Programme Officer - Essential Services, Odisha.
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