Thanks to a flawed Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act our record in Children's Rights remains dismal...

A lamin Ali is a precocious 13-year-old with big dreams. He wants to live in a big house and drive a big car. At 13, he does know quite a bit about houses. He makes bricks for a living. He wakes up at 6 a.m. to go to work in the brick kiln with his parents till about 11.30 a.m. After a break he does another back-aching stint from 3 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. Alamin etches his dreams on paper, in drawings, of living some day in the big houses that he helps build.

November 14-21 is the UN Child Rights Convention (UNCRC) week. This year is significant because it is 20 years since the CRC was signed. India is one of the signatories to the Child Rights Convention. However, little has changed on the ground for millions of children in the country. India's report card on the status of its children is not a cause for celebration this Children's Day.

Article 32 of the UNCRC recognises the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that interferes with a child's education or harmful to the child's health or physical, mental or social development. Brick kiln work is one such hazardous and exploitative form of labour recognised by the International Labour Organisation (Convention 182) as intolerable.

Amending the law

Alamin is one of 13 million children below the age of 14 who are engaged in child labour in India. Though the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act does ban child labour, it only applies to those categories of work that it deems “hazardous.” This is unacceptable as any form of child labour is a complete violation of children's rights. Until the law is amended to ban all child work and more importantly, the law is effectively enforced, India can only get a 2 out of 10 on our report card on how it fares in the treatment of its children. Also, more importantly, the social and cultural sanction of child labour must end.

Article 28 of the UNCRC recognises the right of the child to education... “and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, the State parties shall, in particular: (a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all...”

Seven million children are still out of school in a country where education is a fundamental right. The majority of these tend to be the most socially excluded groups such as disabled children, children of migrants, street and working children. Crucially, only 47 per cent of children finish elementary schooling with 20 per cent dropping out by Grade II. True , advances have been made with the Right to Education Bill being passed this year and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan making some headway. While many more schools may have been opened, whether children actually learn within schools is debatable. Our schools and education system must be made inclusive and relevant to the most marginalised and underprivileged children in society and quality of education improved to meet diverse needs. Until this happens, India can only get a 4 out of 10 on the report card.

Preventable tragedies

Article 6 of the UNCRC recognises the inherent right of every child to life. In India, a tragedy quietly unfolds everyday across villages and towns but receives scant or no attention. According to government sources, 45 children die every hour due to respiratory infections! One child dies every two minutes due to diarrhoea! Over four lakh children die within the first 24 hours of life every year in India mainly of diseases that are easily treatable and even preventable. Despite a decade of rapid economic growth, India's record on child mortality at 72 per 1000 live births is worse than that of neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. India ranks 171 out of 175 countries in the world in public health spending, and nearly 50 per cent of India's children remain malnourished. Despite myths that the costs of reducing child mortality are high, there are examples from within India itself that low-cost interventions could prevent children dying needlessly by up to 70 per cent if provided universally. On present trends India will only reach the Millennium Development Goal 4 on reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2020. India can get no more than a poor 2 out of 10 on this report card.

India's progress can only be measured by the progress it makes in securing the rights of its children. This is critical to ensuring sustainable progress in social and economic productivity. We owe it to the future of our country, our children, that we invest in their well being. Only then can we truly celebrate a day dedicated to children.

Ananthapriya Subramanian works with Save the Children.

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