The Union Cabinet’s green light to the amendments in the existing law against child labour is encouraging. When it comes into force, all forms of child labour under the age of 14 years will be banned, the employment of children in the 14-18 age group in hazardous occupations prohibited and child labour a cognisable offence. This would also mean scaling up the state’s efforts and responsibilities, enhanced expenditure and more involvement of the police and judiciary, if the government is serious about the enforcement of the newly tagged Child and Adolescent Labour Prohibition Act.
So, in practical terms, what should be done? The three major challenges that the government is confronted with are ascertaining enforceability, assessing the real magnitude of the problem and devising appropriate rehabilitative measures. The pre-requisites for all lie in political will substantiated with appropriate budgetary allocations and building effective partnerships with a sense of utmost urgency.
First, the preparedness to enforce deterrents enshrined in the law: the legislation that we have now stipulates for imprisonment up to one year and a penalty up to a maximum of Rs.20,000. But the reality is that while 13,60,117 inspections were carried out under the child labour law since its inception in 1986, barely 49,092 prosecutions were launched and merely 4,774 employers convicted. Most appallingly, a meagre sum of 200 to 400 rupees was imposed as penalty in most of the cases. In some, the penalty was as low as Rs.20- 25. Is this not a ruthless and cruel joke played on the children of our nation? What it calls for is sensitivity, capacity building and accountability of the enforcement machinery at all levels including in supervisory and recommendatory agencies and bodies like Child Welfare Committee (CWC), National and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights, etc. The quickest disposal of cases must be ensured through fast track courts. Framing and implementing rules and standard operating procedures (SOPs) by State governments, other innovative and participatory measures like forming and empowering people’s vigilance committees as well as engaging panchayati raj institutions will be effective steps towards law enforcement. The amendment makes child labour a cognisable offence. Therefore the enforcement will not be confined to the domain of labour inspectorate only, but also bind the police. This will require sensitisation and training of police personnel and systematic coordination between both agencies. The endemic corruption, insensitivity and indifferent attitude of the “inspector class” is not a secret.
Not reflective of reality
Second, the government must have the courage to correctly assess the magnitude of the problem that it is confronted with. If not a pre-condition, accurate data is mandatory for planning and implementation of any scheme. According to the government, the number of child labourers has already nosedived from 1.25 crore (Census 2001) to 90.75 lakh in 2004-05 and recently to 49.6 lakh (National Sample Survey Office). Are these figures truly reflective of the reality? These figures were arrived at on the basis of a sample size of approximately 70,000 across the nation? NGOs and some U.N. agencies estimate the number of child labourers to be as high as four to six crore. Children are falsely listed in school registers while in reality, they have already fallen prey to child trafficking, bonded labour, sexual exploitation and forced beggary thousands of miles away from their homes. The most pertinent question that arises here is that if only negligible prosecutions and convictions were made so far, how were such a large num ber of children rescued or withdrawn? Where have they ultimately gone if merely six lakh children are presently benefitted under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) scheme? Is it not a glaring dichotomy?
Can’t India, which conducts the largest general elections every five years and which is launching an ambitious Unique ID scheme, accurately assess the number of child labourers? While the government must strive for a countrywide survey, as an immediate start it could begin with intense identification of child labourers in industries like carpet, glass, garments, brick kilns, stone quarries, fire crackers and the districts where they are mostly situated like in Mirzapur, Bhadoi, Aligarh, Firozabadh, Sivakasi, Tirupur, Virudunagar, Delhi National Capital Region (NCR), Jalandhar, Ludhiana, etc.
A future for labourers
Lastly, while on the one hand an ambitious, realistic, time bound, well resourced and comprehensive rehabilitation scheme must be put in place, on the other, coordination between child labour elimination agencies, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (including the mid-day meal scheme), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and all other schemes and flagship programmes pertaining to underprivileged children and their families must be ensured. The present scheme for rehabilitation and provision of bridge education to the rescued child labourers is miniscule. This flagship programme, NCLP covers merely six lakh children in 266 districts. The government is currently revising and restructuring this scheme. In the light of the decision to bring in the amendments, the entire government and not just the Ministry of Labour and Employment must demonstrate superior leadership by using the time available between now and the enactment of the new law. A scaled-up and well-resourced national scheme should be devised to cater to at least 50 lakh child labourers up to the age of 14, going by the government’s own statistics. The biggest challenge would be to rehabilitate 15-20 lakh children in the age-group 14 to 18 who are employed in hazardous work. They cannot be absorbed in the conventional schooling system or any existing special educational schemes. Hence a completely new programme with the essential components of vocational skills, employability and entrepreneurship must be taken up on priority.
(Kailash Satyarthi is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and chairperson, Global March Against Child Labour.)