They say well begun is half the work done. Unfortunately public policy does not function like that. Given the constraints of realpolitik and practicality, all politicians get to do sometimes is begin a task well and leave it half-way. While prohibiting employment of children below the age of 14, the Centre decided on Wednesday to let them work in family enterprises and in the audio-visual entertainment industry, provided their school education is not affected. This might seem like a smart compromise to make in an ethically tricky situation, but it leaves a lot to be desired. The debate over child labour has consumed a lot of newsprint and television space. However, the sad reality is that mostly because of poverty, the aggregate sum total of children forced to work keeps on growing.
While hyperbole about “Make in India” is perfectly all right, the truth of the matter is that those beautiful shiny fashion apparel in malls are made by the tender hands of thousands of poor children who ought to be in school focusing on an education critical to their futures. Most of these children work in extremely unsafe and strenuous conditions. The places of occupation range from fields, forests, mines, shops, homes or highly hazardous sweatshops. Tinkering and experimenting with a law will not mean much unless all possible legal loopholes are closed down. The fact that there are millions of children working in conditions worse than hell is perhaps one of India’s worst-kept open secrets.
Ban it or regulate it, the debate over child labour seems unending. Meantime, the numbers of children compelled to work, mostly because of poverty, continue to grow. With all this talk about “Make in India,” we so easily forget that a substantial portion of what is made in India is crafted by the hands of poor children who ought to be in school rather than working. To summarise: this has been the trajectory of the said law so far, according to noted economic and political scientists. In 2012, the former United Progressive Alliance government attempted to tweak the existing Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. It introduced a policy bill to amend the 1986 act that would have effectively prohibited all children below 14 years of age from any occupation that would keep them out of school for long.
The amendment would have also banned children between 14 and 18 years of age from working in hazardous industries (earlier, that applied only to children less than 14 years old). While the former was to ensure that children between the ages of 6 and 14 years could be enrolled in schools under the Right to Education Act, 2009, the latter was being brought in to comply with the International Labour Organization’s Convention on conditions of work of adolescents.
The amendment unfortunately never went through. Although it was duly introduced in the Parliament. While the amendment is definitely a step forward, the lacunae in the text must be bridged to make the law enforceable both in letter and in spirit. It’s also interesting to note that DMK and NDA ally PMK have opposed the Union Cabinet’s decision allowing changes to the child labour law, saying it would snatch away the children’s right to education and jeopardise their future.