The Union Cabinet cleared amendments to the child labour law on Wednesday to allow children below the age of 14 to work in select 'non-hazardous' family enterprises.
The government earlier said it was planning to take the step to encourage learning at home as it led to entrepreneurship. It, however, said the children would be allowed to work only if their education wasn't being hampered.
According to a report published by Hindustan Times on April 8, a draft provision in the Child Labour Prohibition Act said the prohibition on child labour would not apply if they were helping the family in fields, forests and home-based work after school hours or during vacations, or while attending technical institutions.
The new norm would also apply to the entertainment industry and sports except the circus, a proposal by the labour ministry said. In addition, children between 14 and 18 years would not be allowed to work in hazardous industries.
"We don't want to redraw the social fabric of Indian society where children learn by participating in work with family elders. We, instead, want to encourage learning work at home as it leads to entrepreneurship," a government official said.
The changes in the labour law also provide for stricter punishment for employers for violation. While there is no penalty provision for parents for the first offence, the employer would be liable for punishment even for the first violation.
In case of parents, the repeat offenders may be penalised with a monetary fine up to Rs 10,000. In case of first offence, the penalty for employers has been increased up to two and half times from the existing up to Rs 20 thousand to up to Rs 50,000 now.
In case of a second or subsequent offence of employing any child or adolescent in contravention of the law, the minimum imprisonment would be one year which may extend to three years.
Earlier, the penalty for second or subsequent offence of employing any child in contravention of the law was imprisonment for a minimum term of six months which may extend to two years.
Family businesses have been given a wide definition and cover any job, profession, or business performed primarily by family members. This will especially help poor families where children help in family subsistence, officials said.
Child right activists, however, have opposed the move, saying the proposal could be used to deny education to the girl child, whose school drop-out rate is almost double than that of boys, and can hamper the government's bid to provide elementary education to all children below 14 years.
India has seen a sharp drop in the number of child labourers in the last decade, down to 4.3 million from 12.6 million, according to census data. Child rights activists, however, dispute the numbers, saying the decline is due to under-reporting because of fear of prosecution but officials crediting the improvement to increased school enrolment.
A large number of child labourers continue to work in several industries such as fireworks, matchboxes, footwear and carpet making, where children are in high demand owing to their nimble fingers, necessary for intricate designs. Activists say children are often preferred because they can be forced to work long hours with poor pay.
The original child labour law banned the employment of children below 14 in only 18 hazardous industries but the UPA government in 2012 proposed to extend the ban to all industries. They also introduced a new category of adolescents -- 14 to 18 years -- who were banned from hazardous industries but allowed to work in other sectors.
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Bill, 2012, introduced in the Rajya Sabha, recommended a complete ban on child labour until they finish elementary education, guaranteed under the Right To Education Act.
The amendments were welcomed by activists but were seen by many as an "inspector raj" that gave labour department officials a permit to harass small businesses and farmers.
The changes were re-examined by the new government due to apprehensions of misuse and fears that they could upset the social fabric of the country.
These were also the reasons given by the labour ministry while rejecting a parliamentary committee recommendation that barred children from helping parents in domestic chores, saying the ban could be reframed to prohibit employment in all occupations.
The ministry also rejected a proposal to make elementary education a must for employment of adolescents in non-hazardous industries, pointing out that a separate law existed to guarantee education.
Labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya announced said in April that the government would introduce amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition Act in the ongoing winter session of Parliament.
With PTI inputs