The problem of child labour in India is a reality.
Clearly, the situation of these children violates the fundamental right to education, right to childhood and equal opportunity to participate as equal citizens of this country.
Child labour is more or less synonymous with poverty. The only way to break the cycle of poverty that envelops the lives of little children who are employed as child labour is to ensure that they have access to education in accordance with the 86th Amendment to the Constitution.
However, today, the law allows children to work and makes distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous child labour. There is no bar for children below 14 to work in non-hazardous industries.
The legislation, therefore, condones and allows millions of children to be subjected to the hazards of not being in school and working in sometimes extremely difficult and exploitative conditions.
A child can either be in school at a young and tender age, or be made to earn a living. The two cannot be reconciled and the present law is therefore not satisfactory.
Free and compulsory education can only be a reality when all forms of child labour are excluded and when distinctions between hazardous and non-hazardous forms of labour are removed. This would, then, be in line with all international laws and conventions that India has signed.
It is heartening to note that the government has decided to ban the employment of children below the age of 14 as domestic helps and in dhabas, teashops, restaurants, hotels and resorts.
Even earlier, government servants were prohibited from employing young children as domestic helps. This was, however, a partial ban. This has now been expanded and no child may be employed by any person, household or business.
As always, in our country, the new order will likely trigger many conflicting reactions. While many who have worked for years in this area are now optimistic, some civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations will be critical and sceptical.
There is some cause for this. Civil society has not seen much enforcement of law in this sphere. There have been many failures to monitor, rehabilitate and enforce the ban where it is already in force, such as in the hazardous sector.
Therefore, it would be appropriate for the government to immediately devise a mechanism for the rehabilitation of children, their admission into school and for their ultimate employment through counselling, skill building and special education opportunities.
The advantages of this new policy are that many children in urban and rural areas would now be much less exposed to psychological hurt, severe trauma, physical danger and even sexual abuse.
Having said this, it is still true that India is home to, perhaps, the largest number of child labour in the world today. There is really no estimate available with us in the country and hence, an effort must be made to conduct a survey so that the exact numbers become available and a suitable policy can be formulated.
The estimates today are alarming, ranging from about 12 million children according to government sources, to about 100 million children according to NGOs and other sources. These children are steeped in poverty and most of them are part of the informal economy, both in the agriculture and urban sectors, where the reach of the law is hardly visible.
The government has recently announced a ‘National Plan of Action for Children 2005’ where the foremost goals are to eliminate child labour from hazardous occupations by 2007, progressively moving towards complete eradication of all forms of child labour; and to protect children from all kinds of economic exploitation. The other goal is to recover and rescue children from child labour and rehabilitate them.
The Labour Ministry would need to be pro-active, and indeed ambitious, by immediately expanding the child labour rescue programme in all districts of the country at one go. A reasonable target date of the 11th Plan period upto 2012 would suffice for achieving this goal.
There must be a harmonisation of policies of the two Ministries of Labour and Human Resource Development in the best interests of children. We, as a society, must support total elimination of child labour for the reason that children who are at work cannot attend full time formal school. This is a national commitment and there is no reason why India should not deliver to her children.
Finally, it needs to be said that the constitutional position on child labour will need to be re-examined both in terms of the definition of 'child' and in terms of the categorisation of 'hazardous' and 'non-hazardous'.
In time, we would need to extend the definition of child and revise it from the age of 14 to the age of 18 in line with all international definitions. We would also need to amend the Constitution of India to remove the artificial distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous if our ultimate goal is to ensure an enabling environment for survival, growth, development and protection of children so that each child can realise his or her inherent potential.
Thus far, we have performed poorly on many indices relating to children such as infant mortality rates, malnutrition amongst children, survival of the girl child and literacy. Although there are achievements, the progress is not enough.
Compared to countries in South Asia, especially our neighbours, we fare worse, not better. The pernicious effect of child labour cannot be ignored when we look at the total picture of the child's condition in India.
We can optimistically conclude that the present step taken by the Government in announcing the ban on child domestic labour is the initial measure which will lead to many other logical policy announcements and hopefully a thorough review of the constitutional and legal position in this important area.
(The writer retired last week as Union Secretary, Women and Child Development)