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Age beats all tests of time

The Govt's ban on employment of children under the age of 14 will face a scientific catch. Ravi Bajpai finds out.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2006 16:48 IST

The Central government ban on employment of children under the age of 14 years in the hospitality industry and as domestic helps is set to come into effect across the country from October 10.

However, there’s a problem in enforcing the ban that the union Labour Ministry just can’t solve: There’s no way to scientifically determine the exact age of a person. A recent Delhi High Court observation challenging the efficacy of the bone ossification test as a sure-shot method of determining age has further complicated the matter.

Responding to a plea by a man accused in his wife’s dowry death case, Justice AK Sikri recently observed that the bone ossification test can only determine the average age of a person and can’t be used as conclusive evidence. Technically called the radiography test for bone age, the ossification test is the best available age-determination test today.

The test determines the age of a person by analysing the status of bone fusion in different parts of the body. “X-rays of dif ferent body parts like the wrist, elbow, knee and hip joint, are analysed to arrive at the approximate age of the person.

It’s not accurate, as the bone fusion process differs in individuals. There’s a variation of plus/minus 2-3 years,” says Dr Ajay Aggarwal, senior radiologist and director, Diwan Chand Integral Health Services. Only the skull tells Forensic experts confirm the fact.

“Analysis of the six long bones in the body can give us the approximate age, with a margin of two years. We can get an even more accurate figure by analysing the skull bone. But this is generally not done on living people, as rays are made to pass through the brain,” says Dr VK Kashyap, director of National Institute of Biologicals and former director, Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata The other age determination test done by studying the growth of the wisdom tooth is also not accurate.

In the absence of any foolproof test, lee way of plus or minus two years is given to the accused, both in child labour cases and other criminal cases. “For instance, the age of child is if in a labour case the the established as 13 years through bone ossification test, the court will generally add another year (considering the inaccurate nature of the test) and the accused can go scot-free. Similarly, in cases involving child marriage, the accused is given the benefit of doubt andor a couple of years are added subtracted from the ascertained age in favour of the accused,” says advocate Ashok Agarwal.

Cases of child labour are generally not referred for ossification tests due to the socio-cultural nature of the problem. But with domestic helps being included into the scope of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, there’s a high chance of ossification test coming into use on specific complaints.

Domestic ruin

Your domestic helps may land you behind bars if you don’t exercise enough caution before hiring them. From October 10, the employment of children below 14 years as domestic helps will become an offence. While the Labour Ministry is still drafting an action plan to implement the ban at the grassroots level, civil society groups say it is better to be safe than sorry.

What you could be facing?

If caught employing a child, you could be prosecuted under the provisions of the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986. If convicted, you could face imprisonment for three months to one year, or a fine of Rs 10,000-20,000, or both. If convicted again, the prison term is between six months and two years.

Precautions to be taken

"As of now, we can only advise people to avoid hiring domestic helps who are on the borderline for the age restriction. You can judge simply by looking at a person whether he is around 14 years or 20 years. Avoid hiring people in the early teens,” says Shahid Meezan, director in the ministry of labour and employment.

The action against you can broadly come in three forms — if the domestic help placement agency is caught in a racket, if there is a specific complaint against you, or if the police and the labour department take suo moto notice.

Considering the erratic record of placement agencies, one should be extra careful. In case the birth certificate of the domestic help is not available, legal experts suggest an affidavit from the domestic help’s parents confirming his/her age. This can be used as prima facie evidence to prove your clear intent.

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