It's a taint that India should have done away with many years ago. But it has taken 65 years of freedom for a complete ban on all forms of child labour. The cabinet on Tuesday approved the Child & Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act, 1986, which replaced the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. The new Act bans employing children under the age of 14, allows only children between 14-18 years in non-hazardous industries and also proposes a blanket ban on employing anybody below 18 years in hazardous occupations. It defines children between 14-18 years as "adolescents". However, the amended version is also a work in progress and will be fine-tuned before it's sent for parliamentary approval. According to the 2001 census, there are 12.6 million child workers in the country.
The cabinet decision is a welcome move and the amendment is also in line with the International Labour Organisation's convention on child labour. The convention's guidelines seek to provide a minimum age of employment and rules that no child below 14 should be employed and the minimum age should be in line with the minimum age of schooling. In that sense, this amendment is in line with India's Right to Education Act which ensures free and compulsory education for children between six and 14 years. The rehabilitation aspect has also been strengthened and streamlined in the amended Act: it is now with the ministry of women and child development and the education aspect will be handled by the education department and not the labour department as was the earlier mandate. Some experts feel that the introduction of a new segment - adolescents - may create confusion. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that anyone under 18 years will be considered a child. We should have also stuck to that definition.
The war against child labour will not end only with the passing of strong laws. It needs proper implementation and rehabilitation. Otherwise, these children will move from one state to another and continue evading the law-keepers. There is also an express need to beef up the existing State structures - the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and bodies like the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights - to ensure that once children are out of the labour market, they don't go back in to it. In most cases, children are forced to join the labour market because of poverty at home. So, it is a no-brainer that the strongest bulwark against their entry into the labour market is eradication of poverty. That, as we all know, is a long haul.