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RS passes Child Labour Amendment Bill. Will children's condition improve?

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

Here's a grim statistical reality: according to the 2001 Census, there were 12.6 million child workers between the ages of five and 14 in India.

The good news is that in the 2011 Census, that number fell to 4.35 million. However, there are still millions of children who need urgent help for a better future.

On Tuesday, 19 July, more than year after the Union Cabinet approved the draft Bill, the Rajya Sabha passed the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill. The Bill was passed by a voice vote amid opposition. It will now be taken up by the Lok Sabha.

The Bill was introduced by Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya some 30 years after the initial Bill was passed. It restricts the employment of children below 14 in all occupations and enterprises, except those run within the family - a clause that has raised the heckles of many activists and social workers.

Major amendments

The major amendments from the 1986 law include allowing children aged between 14 and 18 years to be employed in any home-based work, which includes helping families in fields and forests.

Heftier penalties will be imposed on violators, including a jail term of six months to two years and a fine of Rs 20,000-50,000, up from the previous range of Rs 10,000-20,000.

Worryingly, the number of 'prohibitive' or 'hazardous' occupations on the prohibitive list have been brought down from 80-odd to three.

The law also makes it mandatory for children to help their families only after school hours or during vacations. With respect to rehabilitation of a child once rescued, it shall be the responsibility of the state government. The government will provide Rs 15,000 and add the fine from the employer to help with the child's rehabilitation.

Cabinet's statement

The Cabinet, last year, had issued a statement, saying the socio-economic scenario in the country and the kinds of vocations people are employed in needed to be considered before the Bill could be ratified.

It stated: "In a large number of families, children help parents in occupations such as agriculture and artisanship, and while helping the parents, children also learn the basics of these occupations. Therefore, striking a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic condition and social fabric in the country, the cabinet has approved a child can help his family or family enterprise, which is other than any hazardous occupation or process, after school hours or during vacation."

Dattatreya, while appreciating the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, said the move was aimed at the "total abolition of child labour".

On the 'family' clause exception, Dattatreya said the Bill ensures sufficient provisions are present to prevent the employment of adolescents in hazardous occupations and processes, such as chemicals and mines, and that a 'family' has been exempted keeping in mind the implementation process and 'ground realities'.

Political opposition

Those opposing the Bill had some vital points to make.

D Raja, Rajya Sabha member from the CPI, said the Child Labour Bill should not be passed in haste, primarily taking objection to the 'family enterprise' clause within the Bill.

Trinamool Congress leader Vivek Gupta had also said the family member clause could disannul the clause that restricts children from being employed in hazardous conditions and occupations involving chemicals and poisonous substances. Gupta added that there could also be an issue in families employing children in beedi-making and carpet-weaving businesses.

Satyarthi's concerns

Nobel laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi said that the Bill was 'disappointing'. "The number of hazardous places to work in has been reduced to three, which is worrying," he said in a TV interview.

With respect to the 'family' clause, Satyarthi gave the example of a domestic help, where a young child could help his mother carry out chores at a landlord's place which employs the mother. He also said it was worrying that there was no mechanism to check if the child was a 'family member'.

Satyarthi added that while the amendments may have good intentions, and could move gradually towards total prohibition of child labour, he was not happy for the millions of child labourers who still needed a stronger law to rescue them.

NGOs react adversely

Sanjay Gupta, director, Childhood Enforcement Through Training and Action (CHETNA), an NGO working against child labour, called the Bill an eyewash.

"When faced with complaints, the police passes the buck on to the Labour Ministry, which then passes it on to the Women and Child Welfare Ministry. There is no single window clearance available for complaints," he said.

Gupta said the Bill does not focus on rehabilitation, wherein lies the key to eliminate child labour. He also said that the 'family' clause could spell trouble for hundreds of children across the country.

"Ancillary work, where children help their 'families', could be possible in garment factories and agriculture. Even begging could be a family business. This leaves much scope for abuse," he added.

Social workers have also stated that when families migrate, children have to migrate with them, and are forced to work as labourers. According to Gupta, there is no mechanism to check whether migrant children are forced to work.

"It took 30 years for the amendment, and yet its locus standi was not the protection of children. The crux of the Bill seems to be that the government is under the belief that a child can complete his education while carrying out work or help their family businesses," said Jaya Singh, associate general manager at Child Relief and You, an NGO.

Singh explained that the socio-economic conditions the government speaks of is a result of its own policies and politics, and should not be considered while talking of a grave issue such as the protection of children.

"There is no mechanism to check how long children would work and what conditions they work in. Without an efficient mechanism, the Bill will serve no purpose," she added.

Presently the only system in place is periodic inspections by monitoring committees headed by local MPs.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 21 July 2016, 12:17 IST
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.