At first glance, the >Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, passed last month in Parliament, seems progressive. It prohibits “the engagement of children in all occupations and of adolescents in hazardous occupations and processes” wherein adolescents refers to those under 18 years; children to those under 14. >The Act also imposes a fine on anyone who employs or permits adolescents to work. However, on careful reading, the new Act suffers from many problems. One, it has slashed the list of hazardous occupations for children from 83 to include just mining, explosives, and occupations mentioned in the Factory Act. This means that work in chemical mixing units, cotton farms, battery recycling units, and brick kilns, among others, have been dropped. Further, even the the ones listed as hazardous can be removed, according to Section 4 — not by Parliament but by government authorities at their own discretion.
Two, section 3 in Clause 5 allows child labour in “family or family enterprises” or allows the child to be “an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry”. Since most of India’s child labour is caste-based work, with poor families trapped in intergenerational debt bondage, this refers to most of the country’s child labourers. The clause is also dangerous as it does not define the hours of work; it simply states that children may work after school hours or during vacations. Think of the plight of a 12-year-old coming home from school and then helping her mother sow umpteen collars on shirts to meet the production deadline of a contractor. When will she do her homework? How will she have the stamina to get up the next morning for school?
India has passed a number of laws on child labour since Independence. Article 24 of the Constitution prohibits employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines, and other hazardous employment. Article 21A and Article 45 promise to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14. In 2009, India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). But the amendments in the new law make it practically impossible to implement the RTE. Its clauses put such a burden on poor low-caste families that instead of promoting education, the Act actually increases the potential for dropouts. And parents, scared of the huge fines that they may have to pay for employing their children, are likely to lie about school attendance and may unwillingly comply with contractors in employing them.
A number of laws have also addressed what to include and omit in the list of hazardous occupations. In 1986, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act had prohibited the employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous occupations identified in a list by the law. After much discussion and expansion, the list included 83 occupations. The National Policy on Child Labour of 1987, implemented in 1988, adopted a gradual approach that combined the strict enforcement of laws on child labour with development programmes to address the root causes of child labour like caste and poverty. It focussed on the rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations. The Central government provided a Rs.6 billion fund for implementing the policy. Unfortunately, this budget has been cut massively in education (28 per cent) and for women and children (50 per cent) in the last two years alone, leading to the the closure of 42,000 schools. The Education for All initiative and the Mahila Samakhya programmes have also been downsized, leading to reports of increased trafficking of tribal and minority girls from Odisha and Jharkhand. Taxes charged for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaigns have reportedly been misused. The only funds for the rehabilitation of children are through monies and assets seized from convicted employers.
Reversing gains Not only do the new amendments reverse the gains of the 1986 Act, but actually contradict the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act of 2000 that makes it punishable for anyone to procure or employ a child in a hazardous occupation. They also contravene the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Minimum Age Convention and UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is a signatory. According to UNICEF, a child is involved in child labour if he or she is between 5 and 11 years, does at least one hour of economic activity, or at least 28 hours of domestic work in a week. And in case of children aged between 12 and 14, 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity and domestic work per week is considered child labour.
The devastating health consequences of the new Act may be the worst blow on India’s poor yet. There are 33 million child labourers in India, according to UNICEF. As per the 2011 census, 80 per cent of them are Dalits, 20 per cent are from the Backward Classes. This law will restrict these children to traditional caste-based occupations for generations.
If the amendments intended to preserve Indian art and craft by enabling parents with traditional skills to pass them on to their children, this should be done through reform and investment in education. Slashed budgets should be restored; mid-day meals should re-instituted; and secure housing should be provided through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan boarding schools to homeless children. Artisans should be hired as teachers to pass on traditional knowledge and skills to the next generation.
Ruchira Gupta is an anti-trafficking activist, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and has worked in UNICEF in US, Iran, and Kosovo.