Children of a Lesser God – Indian Currents, Editorial

“Child slavery is a crime against humanity. Humanity itself is at stake here. A lot of work still remains but I will see the end of child labour in my lifetime,” said Kailash Satyarthi, who, along with Malala Yuzafzai of Pakistan, shared this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace. :: Dr Suresh Mathew

“Child slavery is a crime against humanity. Humanity itself is at stake here. A lot of work still remains but I will see the end of child labour in my lifetime,” said Kailash Satyarthi, who, along with Malala Yuzafzai of Pakistan, shared this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace. But, going by the implementation of the Child Labour Act and the proposed amendments to it, it is doubtful whether Mr Satyarthi will be able to see and enjoy the day when the menace is erased from India which is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world. Instead of banning child labour completely, the proposed amendments have permitted children, below 14 years, to work in family in areas like agricultural fields and forest gathering, after school hours. Though the Bill has prohibited engaging children in works outsourced in homes, the government has no mechanism to monitor it. In fact, the amendment is opening up a loophole to employ children, under the guise of family work, in family business or even in the business of other families. This goes against the tenets of Right to Education which specifies that children up to the age of 14 should get compulsory elementary education.

The proposed amendments make a distinction between children below 14 years; and children between 14 and 18 years who are termed adolescents.  While children below 14 years have been prohibited from being engaged in labour, the adolescents can be engaged in occupation, but not in hazardous ones. This is in line with the International Labour Organisation’s Convention which prohibits employment of children below 18 years in hazardous works. In India, the 1986 law had permitted children above 14 years to take up hazardous occupation. The proposed amendment is a welcome change.

However, what is perturbing is the absence of any provision for rescue and rehabilitation of children. Child beggars at traffic signals; kids selling flowers, books and assorted items; vast number of rag-picking children at every nook and cranny in urban areas; the ‘chottus’ working long hours in wayside tea stalls; little girls engaged as domestic helps mostly in unfriendly atmosphere….. such sights are unending in most parts of the country. It is abject poverty that draws them to work under wretched circumstances. They are being forced out of their homes at a tender age to supplement the meagre family income. Unless feasible and workable rehabilitation measures are drawn up, no step to end the menace of child labour can work on the ground.

It is equally important that absence of strict implementation of anti-child labour laws will make a mockery of the whole effort. There have been reports of law-makers themselves employing children in their homes and establishments, thumbing their nose at the very law they have made. Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that the country holds an infamous 117th rank in the World Happiness Index in which countries like Pakistan and Iraq hold better position than India.

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