The fight against child labour has succumbed to complacency, an old mindset and apathy of lawmakers. This is perhaps for the benefit of employers and private parties.
On July 26, Parliament passed the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016. I had hoped that after 36 years of struggle, the last four of which were devoted to engagement and deliberations with the government regarding this Bill, we would create a strong and robust law. I had expected to work alongside the government for its effective implementation.
It was heartening to see that in both houses of Parliament, the people’s representatives spoke up for the rights of children. However, these opinions were not considered. Irrespective, I applaud their commitment and effort.
I had hoped that the elected leaders of our country would acknowledge that the value of freedom and childhood is greater than that of a vote. However, a large section of our politicians remained undeterred in their disregard for child rights.
Despite progressive elements, the lacunae in this Bill are self-defeating.
The definition of “family” and “family enterprises” is flawed. The Bill uses Indian family values to justify the economic exploitation of children. It is misleading society by blurring the lines between learning in a family and working in a family enterprise.
Between January 2010 and December 2014, my organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, rescued 5,254 children from exploitative labour. Twenty-one per cent of those below 14 were employed with family members. Eighty-three per cent of the children were rescued from home-based units. These children will now be outside the protection of the law. Also, most of them were working below subsistence wages. For example, in a raid in northwest Delhi, we rescued 11 children who were being paid only a rupee an hour.
In addition, children of any age can now legally work in brick kilns, slaughter houses, beedi making, glass furnaces and other hazardous workplaces under the garb of their being family enterprises. They are permitted to work and be employed after school hours or during vacations, and the reduction in the number of hazardous occupations from 83 to three will only delimit the protection that can be provided to these children.
It is also in contravention of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, which was amended by Parliament six months ago. According to the new law, a person selling tobacco or tobacco products to a child will be imprisoned for up to five years. But, the same person can now employ a child to manufacture beedis. These loopholes in the new Bill defeat the purpose of the ban.
In 1999, I had led a global march against child labour across 103 countries. The world leaders responded to the plight of children and my humble efforts and, in principle, agreed to pass an international law. This resulted in the adoption of International Labour Organisation Convention on the worst forms of child labour, also known as Convention 182. I am deeply saddened that even after 17 years, our government has not ratified this convention.
However, on behalf of our country’s most marginalised children, I am really disappointed.
The new Bill reinforces the status quo by hindering the socio-economic mobility of the marginalised and furthers the rigid norms of social hierarchy. There is a re-feudalisation of power whereby society is being deluded into believing the amendments will serve the oppressed. What we are witnessing is commercialisation of children by viewing them from an economic perspective.
Eliminating child labour is not a problem to be solved, but a purpose to be served. The state must understand that sustainable development can be built only around shared democratic values and support for human rights.
There is an urgent need for a humanistic, moderate and constructive Bill, with a reasonable degree of clarity. As the world progresses towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, India threatens to unravel the pace of progress by opening a back door for a large number of children to enter the workforce.
Development must encompass social and human development as well. A large section of our Parliament seems to have disregarded this thinking. But, I am a hopeful man. I have faith in the people of India.
In the country of Mahatma Gandhi and Gautam Buddha, we must protect and cherish the children’s right to childhood. There is no greater violence than to deny the rights of our children. Today, justice must rise above the law.
Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is honorary president of the Global March Against Child Labour and the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan.