The Labour Ministry, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to take two important measures to improve India’s poor child labour record. It has decided to prevent children from selling cold drinks and ice-cream. And it has insisted that industries where child labour is allowed will have to ‘educate’ them. Either the babus in the ministry are singularly bereft of ideas or, as is more likely, they don’t really care to do anything to end this ugly phenomenon. To take the second proposal. Any industry that employs children does so because it wants to cut down on labour costs and because it has scant regard for the law. To ask such an entity to educate the children it employs is a no-brainer. But this also means that the government, instead of trying to do away with child labour altogether, is quite content to let some industries use children even though these may not be categorised as hazardous.
Banning children from selling ice-cream and cold drinks is an extension of an earlier ban on children working in dhabas and homes. Nothing has been done to implement these measures. Has the government undertaken any survey of homes or dhabas to see whether its instructions have been complied with? No. But that has not prevented it from announcing further steps. Had the government been serious, we would not be a country with not only the largest number of anti-child labour laws but also the largest number of child workers. The old argument that many families cannot do without the income earned by their children is an admission that welfare policies have not worked. In states where the mid-day meal scheme has been effectively implemented and parents given a stipend to see that their children go to school, the child labour problem is not so acute.
But the starting point can only be that making children work in any industry is unacceptable. Those children periodically rescued also need rehabilitation. We have seen that the failure to integrate them into the mainstream has led to their returning to the workforce. For a country that prides itself on its youth as a valuable resource, India is singularly cavalier about ensuring that our children grow up into healthy and productive adults.