The amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, > passed by Parliament recently , demonstrate a lack of national commitment to abolishing all forms of child labour. Instead of attempting an overhaul of legislation that has proved ineffective in curbing the phenomenon, Parliament has > allowed children up to the age of 14 to be employed in ‘family enterprises’ , and created a new category of ‘adolescents’ (the 14-18 age group) who can be employed in ‘non-hazardous’ occupations. In the name of acknowledging the socio-economic realities of India, the amendments tweak the law in such a way that children are in some form or other available for employment. The only concession to their educational rights is that they are permitted to work in family enterprises only outside school hours and during vacations. Curiously, the main amendment — to ban children up to the age of 14 in any occupation — is being touted as a progressive leap from the earlier ban limited to some occupations and processes. It should not be forgotten that with the passage of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, a statutory obligation to ensure that every child completes elementary education, is already in place. The exemption to family enterprises effectively retains conditions under which children are made to contribute economically while studying. Working outside of school hours and earning valuable income for the family will surely have a deleterious effect on the children’s health as well as their aptitude for learning.
Regulation is going to be a big challenge, as it will be difficult to determine whether a particular family is running an enterprise, or whether some faceless owner has employed a single family to circumvent the law. The fallout will be a higher dropout rate. They may go to school for some years, concurrently work with their families, and graduate to being full-time adolescent workers, without completing elementary education. The NDA government, like its predecessor that proposed the amendments, seems to be satisfied with mere compliance with International Labour Organisation Conventions 138 and 182. The former mandates compulsory schooling till the age of 15, but permits countries with inadequate education facilities to reduce it to 14, while Convention 182 prohibits employment of children “in the worst forms of labour”. Bare compliance with international norms is not enough. Children from the poor and marginalised sections, especially Dalits, are still in danger of being deprived of both the joys of childhood and their constitutional right to education. It is yet another stark reminder that the country is far from achieving the complete elimination of child labour.