Changes in child labour laws absurd

The Union Cabinet’s approval of amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, raises several troubling questions. Instead of making the hiring of child labour in all its forms a crime, the amendments legitimise its practice in more subtle and insidious ways. The Narendra Modi government will argue that the cabinet’s amendments are an improvement over the Bill brought in by its predecessor, the UPA government. Indeed, unlike the UPA government’s proposed banning of employment of children below 14 years in only 18 hazardous industries, the Modi government’s amendments ban children below the age of 18 from being hired in any hazardous industry. This is a welcome improvement. However, simultaneously, it makes it legal for children to work in family enterprises and the entertainment industry on the condition that it does not interfere with their education. The government has justified this move on the grounds that it will allow children to acquire traditional skills even as they go to school. Thus, the child of a weaver will learn weaving, preparing him for earning a livelihood when he grows up. The government says that legitimising the hiring of children in family enterprises is necessary as this is the social reality in the country. This is an absurd argument. We sho-uld be changing those aspects of social reality that are oppressive and harsh, not accommodating our laws to endorse them.

Carpet weaving, for instance, is often done by family enterprises. It is here that the slender and agile fingers of children are aggressively sought. But the carpet weaving industry is also among the most exploitative of children. Is the government comfortable with this exploitation of children? Beedi-rolling and fireworks manufacture are the other industries that are dominated by ‘family enterprises.’ These will see a surge in child labour now. It is likely that many businesses will now claim to be ‘family enterprises’ to be able to hire children. Worse, such businesses will make children work in the evenings and nights.

Owing to deep complexity, it is never going to be easy to eliminate child labour. It is true that simply banning child labour only sends the problem underground. However, legalising it even partially will now throw open the flood gates. Many decades of hard work to end child labour in the country have now been dealt a deadly blow. The Modi government must rethink its decision to legalise child labour in family enterprises. Children must be able to enjoy their childhood. This is a right that the government must not take away.

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