The government plans to relax child labour laws and allow children below the age of 14 to work in select family enterprises if it doesn't hamper their education, saying it wants to encourage learning at home as it leads to entrepreneurship.
A draft provision in the Child Labour Prohibition Act says the prohibition on child labour will not apply if they are helping the family in fields, forests and home-based work after school hours or during vacations, or while attending technical institutions.
The new norm will also apply to the entertainment industry and sports except the circus, a proposal by the labour ministry says. In addition, children between 14 and 18 years will 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," said a government official.
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 last week the government would be introducing amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition Act in the ongoing winter session. The ministry has prepared to proposal to seek the cabinet's approval and it is expected to be considered soon.