In a country where human rights often clash with economic considerations, many often find difficult to take an unequivocal stand on child labour. They find it difficult to answer a simple but a difficult question: Is putting food on the table more important than education or vice versa?
Unfortunately, this is a choice many Indians have to make every day and many among them don’t even see anything wrong in sending their children out to work to supplement the family income. In such a challenging scenario, it is the duty of the State to spread a safety net wider so that children are not burdened with such duties and families are not forced to send their children to work. In fact, the State, unlike people, does not have the luxury of taking a stand on this: It has to on the right side of the child labour debate. But after 30 years, on Tuesday, when Parliament passed the new child labour law, which claims that it bans all forms of child labour till the age of 14, it turned out to be an “illusion”. Reacting to the passage of the Bill, BJP MP Varun Gandhi said: “It’s not leniency, but lunacy”. The UPA regime had brought forward the Bill but it lapsed at the end of the last Lok Sabha.
Here’s why it has is being called an “illusion”: The amendment to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Bill 2016 continues to allow children to be employed in family-based enterprises and the employment of children in most hazardous occupations like tanning, bangle-making, zari work, carpets, domestic work, e-waste and numerous others that till recently were recognised as hazardous for children will now be permitted.
The Bill not only legitimises child labour (the definition of ‘family’ is too wide in the Bill) but also reinforces caste-based occupations. Since most family-based occupations in India are caste-based, civil society representatives say that the law by allowing children to work in family occupations will keep the caste system intact and in a feudal, caste-driven society the worst affected would be Dalits and the marginalised, a ghastly example of which was the beating and humiliation of Dalit youths in Gujarat and Bihar. Although all children are now banned from working in hazardous occupations, the 16 occupations and 65 processes that were listed as hazardous in the earlier (1986) law have now been replaced by three occupations and 29 processes that are in the Factories Act that covers only the organised sector. So now what about children employed in the unorganised sector?
Although the government’s data claims there is a significant decrease in the number of child labourers, the truth is that the number of children working in the unorganised sector is multiplying (for example, Census 2011 shows that child labour in urban settings has actually increased). Besides, every day newer ‘occupations’ are coming up that are hazardous and dangerous, but they will not find a place in the law.
Labour and employment Minister Bandaru Dattatreya told Parliament that the exemptions would allow the government to “practically implement” the Act. The government’s duty is to implement laws; it cannot use its inability to do so as an excuse to pass half-baked laws and push India’s children towards a bleak future.