Grey laws woe for child labour

Seventy per cent of child labour violations take place in the agriculture sector

Child labour

Namrata Acharya
In the rat-hole mines of Meghalaya, only children can enter to extract coal. Children are best suited for carrying out artificial pollination in the BT cotton fields of north Gujarat.

Falling sex ratios in Haryana and Punjab have created a demand for brides children sold off by their parents for a paltry sum of Rs 15,000 in Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal to produce male heirs. All across India, the utility of child labour is high and so is its demand.

These are excerpts of a documented field survey on child labour of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a government body to monitor the rights of children.

Kailash Satyarthi may have won a Nobel Prize for his labours against child labour but in India, the jobs for children are well-defined and the laws protecting citizens aged below 18 years are often inadequate. On a closer look, some laws meant to curb child labour, end up endorsing it.

Inadequate rules
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 is the key law governing and preventing child labour in India. The Act prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in hazardous industries.

Quite glaringly, it provides a scope for employment of these children in non-hazardous industries.

It also leaves the scope for employment of children between 14 and 16 years in hazardous industries.

In 2012, the government introduced a draft The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. The Bill, still in a consultative stage, seeks to add a new category, adolescence, for persons aged between 15 and 18 years, who will be prohibited to work in all hazardous industries. Employing a child below 14 years in any kind of occupation except where the child helps his family after school hours is set to become a cognisable offence punishable with a maximum of imprisonment of three years or fine up to Rs 50,000.

However, the initial draft of the the Bill is no panacea for child labour.

We want the right to education and abolition of child labour to be parallel laws. There should be a complete ban on any form of child labour till the age of 18. We have submitted this recommendation to the proposed amendment in the Bill, said Yogesh Dube, chairman, Bhartiya Vikas Sansthan, and a former member NCPCR.

If child labour laws are fluid in nature, they are more easily violated than followed. We found cases where children are being employed in the name of vocational training. For example, in the carpet mills of Varanasi, there have been instances where a large number of children have been employed in the name of training, said Vinod Kumar Tikoo, a former member of the NCPCR.

The slow pace of reforms in child labour laws can be assessed from the fact that it was as late as 2006, when the government included working in households and roadside eateries and motels under the prohibited list of hazardous occupations, and it was only in 2008 that employment involving exposure to excessive heat and cold, stone mining and stone quarries were added to the list of prohibited occupations. Other laws, too, allow persons aged below 18 years to be employed.

For example, The Factories Act, 1948, prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years.

However, an adolescent aged between 15 and 18 years can be employed in a factory if he obtains a certificate of fitness from an authorised doctor, according to the list of National Legislation and Policies Against Child Labour in India cited in the website of International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Again, The Mines Act, 1952 prohibits the employment of persons aged below 18 years in a mine.

However, it states that apprentices above 16 may be allowed to work under proper supervision, according to the ILO website.

It is hoped that once the amended The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Bill is passed, it would supersede other laws and help in the effective prevention of child labour.

An important development towards the prevention of child labour in India is the the M C Mehta case (1996), in which the Supreme Court directed the Union and the state governments to identify all children working in hazardous processes and occupations, to withdraw them from work, and to provide them with quality education through a consolidated fund. Unfortunately not much is known about how this fund is being utilised for the rehabilitation of the children, said former NCPCR member Tikko.

Sector-wise violations
The highest number of child labour violations are to be found in areas such as domestic help, agriculture, roadside eateries and coal mining.The most evident misuse of constitutional provisions is to be found in the rat-hole mining sector in Meghalayas Jaintia Hills region.

The mines in the area are often the size of a burrow, allowing only minors to enter them. Naturally, the conditions in these mines are extremely hazardous.

The Jaintia Hill region falls under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This gives special rights to the tribal population for mining.

Taking advantage of this, a large number of private miners from outside the state have been conducting rat-hole mining, employing as many as 70,000 children, said Tikoo.

Recently, the National Green Tribunal had put a ban on such mining citing environment hazards. We conducted the study two years ago and pushed for a ban on rat-hole mining. Subsequently, the Meghalaya government came up with a declaration banning such mining. However, it continues unabated. It seems the state lacks the will to curb such mining, said Bhartiya Vikas Sansthan chairman Dube.

Agriculture remains one of the largest grey areas in the efforts to curb child labour. This sector has been left out of the scope of any child labour laws. More than 70 per cent of the child labour violations take place in the agriculture sector. But the act governing child labour is limited to hazardous industries, said N G Khaitan, partner, Khaitan & Co. Domestic help at homes is another area where a large number of children are employed.

In Delhi, following a large number of complaints over the exploitation of child labour through illegal placement agencies, the state government introduced, The Draft Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill 2012. The Bill stipulates that no agency shall employ, engage or deploy anyone under the age of 18 years as a domestic help.

Violation of the Bills provisions can fetch a jail term up to one year and a fine of Rs 20,000. However, the progress of the passage of the Bill has been tardy.

Recently, the Delhi High Court summoned the state governments labour secretary over the non-compliance of its previous directions for regulating placement agencies through an executive order. The directions were given on the basis of a public interest writ petition moved by Satyarthis non-government organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan. The age limit for juvenile crime is 18, but for child labour, raising it to 18 is easier said than done.

Constitutional provisions governing child labour in India
  • No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory, or mine, or engaged in any other hazardous employment (Article 24)
  • The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children between six years and 14 years (Article 21 (A))
  • The State shall direct its policy towards securing that the health and strength of workers, men and women and the tender age of children are not abused and that they are not forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age and strength (Article 39-e)
  • Children shall be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that their childhood and youth shall be protected against moral and material abandonment (Article 39-f)
  • The State shall endeavour to provide within a period of 10 years from the commencement of the Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years (Article 45)
Source: ILO: National Legislation and Policies Against Child Labour in India

First Published: Oct 19 2014 | 9:36 PM IST

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