The Cabinet decision to seek total prohibition of child labour is a step long overdue

The Cabinet Committee has passed the proposal seeking a total ban on employing children under 14 years and of 14-18 year olds in hazardous occupations. When passed in Parliament as law, it will be a huge milestone in the journey that many of us had started in the mid-1980s. This also marks a milestone in my own personal journey as a child rights activist.

The first time I engaged with this issue was in 1986 when the government was drafting the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 (CLPRA). Activists were protesting against the proposed law that would allow children to work in “non hazardous” occupations below the age of 14 years and in all occupations, hazardous and non-hazardous, beyond that age. We saw this as a violation of the basic right to childhood, as children as young as six and seven years were employed and leading horrifying lives.

The law was passed and since then, India has had a law that for all practical purposes, that allows children to work. Over the years, activists have been advocating, fighting and campaigning on child labour throughout the country so that the government recognised the gravity of the problem and showed the political will to address it.

Leads to poverty

Child labour is a harsh reality, we were told by the government, children of the poor must work or how will they will survive?

This was the very argument that led to India’s declaration to Article 32 to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child when the government ratified the Convention in 1992, stating that “… being aware that it is not practical immediately to prescribe minimum ages for admission to each and every area of employment in India — the Government of India undertakes to take measures to progressively implement the provisions of article 32 ….”

And hence even while India marched into economic growth and its place as a world superpower, child labour continued with legal support.

Child rights activists were clear that child labour leads to poverty and not vice versa; child labour was a reality because without doubt, employers preferred children as they could be paid less, made to work longer hours and beaten into submission: the only way to address child labour and poverty was to ensure that child labour was banned, every child was in school and that they were replaced by adults who were paid at least minimum wages.

Educating children

But, the child labour law was in direct disharmony with the Fundamental Right to Education after (86th Amendment to the Constitution, 2002) and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) passed in 2009. All children had the right to education but how could children be at school and at work at the same time?

A public Interest litigation (PIL) filed by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, M.V. Foundation and Social Jurist in 2005, for the first time raised this contradiction between the two laws in the Supreme Court, which issued a notice on December 12, 2005, to the Centre seeking enforcement of the right to education of every child in the age group of six to 14 by abolishing child labour in all its forms. But the government did not pay heed.

Moreover, even as raids and rescues of child labour revealed exploitation and abuse, CLPRA did not make child labour a cognisable offence. It was the Campaign against Child Labour (CACL) and the Campaign against Child Trafficking (CACT) that drew the government’s attention to this as did HAQ, a member of the Central Advisory Board on Child Labour. This issue was addressed somewhat in 2007, when the rules for the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (JJA), in Section 26 of JJA made child labour a cognisable offence, bringing some relief. However, now there was a contradiction between JJA and CLPRA. JJA covered all children under 18 years in hazardous sectors, while CLPRA remained restricted to under 14 year olds.

Meanwhile, India was under tremendous international pressure to recognise child labour as a problem. Big companies under flak from activists, began to opt for “child labour free” declarations for the products they bought from, or produced in India. U.N. agencies such as the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child to which India has reported three times (the last report is due for discussion) raised questions about India’s continued stand on child labour being a harsh reality and therefore not possible to eliminate.

The present move of the government to finally ban all child labour below the age of 14 years and in hazardous labour between 14-18 years is a coming together of all these efforts. It will finally resolve contradictions between the different laws.

Better late than never! Of course, this is only the first stage to its becoming law, and we hope that Parliament will pass the proposal making it a law.

Will the law alone lead to the elimination of child labour? Perhaps not. After all, any change on the ground is dependent on the successful implementation of the law and this is an area in which India lags behind severely. And hence the battle for implementation of the law, once it is passed, will have to continue.

But let us not be sceptical for now. Let us recognise and rejoice that this will be a giant leap in the history of child rights in India. For the first time, after over two and a half decades of struggle, the government has recognised that despite child labour being a “harsh reality,” the law must be forward looking. Instead of law reflecting reality, it must be designed to change it.

(Enakshi Ganguly Thukral is co-director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.)

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