The Union cabinet recently approved changes to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act that, among other things, would provide for banning the employment of children below 14 years in hazardous industries but would not in certain non-hazardous industries such as entertainment and family enterprises. Nishit Kumar, head of communication and strategic initiatives at Childline India Foundation, speaks to Ranjita Ganesan about the implications of the changes
What are the positive and negative aspects of the changes to the Act?
One good aspect of this change is that children up to the age of 18 will not be allowed to work in hazardous industries. The ban on allowing children under the age of 14 to work is what we have been seeking all along. All children must study at least till Class X for India to achieve its demographic dividend.
But where this 14-year age limit comes from is unclear. The age bar does not reflect the reality of our current education system. When the Constitution was adopted in 1949, children started Class I at the age of four and took 11 years to matriculate. But in the mid-70s, India shifted to the 10+2+3 system and thus, there is no basis for 14 years of education now. No other major legal provision has this age definition: Guardians and Wards Act, Majority Act or the Transport Act. This age limit first appeared in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1986. Later, the Right to Education Act was introduced in 2009. During this time, legislators should have recognised the change in our education system, which made it impossible to complete Class X by 14. There was a chance to rectify that but the change has not been incorporated.
Children would be allowed to work in non-hazardous family enterprises but only after school and during vacations. Will this caveat be enough precaution?
The current law allows non-hazardous work provided it is done after school or during vacations. How will we interpret this definition on the ground? Suppose a child is 14 years old and studies two hours in night school and works 14 hours making bangles. Is that acceptable? The term "family enterprises" also has issues - for instance, the household help will say this is a family business, my mother and grandmother all have been sweeping. What is the definition? Is it restricted to specific industries? This is whitewash and millions could be put to work. It could also be a huge setback to girl children who could be pulled out of school early.
How has the Act been misused previously?
At the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai recently, I saw an ice-cream stall where a child of not more than 8 years was scraping ice. I introduced myself to the man running the cart and said I would call the cops. He said the child went to school and was only helping because he wanted to be at the festival. Sometimes, they will say a boy is 15 years old. You need a bone density test to determine the real age but that can be off the mark too.
Some feel this could lead to more child labour in the farm sector? Your view?
Even in the issue of children up to 18 years, have they listed agriculture or working with pesticides and insecticides as hazardous? In the fields of Kerala, Endosulfan is used. This can cause diseases like Alzheimer's. Children are sent out to spray it in the mistaken belief that they can't contract the disease. That is not called hazardous but working in a tea-shop is. Meet any senior police inspector and ask for a cup of tea. It will be brought in by a small child with cups in a steel holder. Why is Mumbai Police allowing children to deliver tea? They laugh at us if we say it is a hazardous industry.
Will the higher penalty for employers be an effective deterrent?
Firstly, why should the Labour Department handle penalties? Its primary role in India is to make sure maximum people work. Should the penalties not be with the child welfare committees instead? It doesn't make sense. Maharashtra is among the top five states in terms of economic growth. Childline has done thousands of rescues and in each case, they have taken Rs 20,000 as fine from the employer but not a single paisa has been sent t rehabilitate of the child. Our contention is when you are levying penalties, it is not just a question of increasing the amount but that it should go to the child welfare committee.
What reforms were you expecting? What changes would you recommend?
In some occupations, especially those that are excluded from the hazardous industries, we need a regulated atmosphere. Mumbai is home of the advertising industry. If you see how advertisements are shot, it happens at 10 or 11 pm or 2 am. Parents of child actors say they are accompanying the children but in reality, it is the greed of the parent to get money. The child is a minor, below 18 years and so doesn't get the money. This should be strictly done in non-school hours, in daytime and for a maximum of two hours a day only.