A reactionary proposal in a progressive child rights era

The Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has given its approval for moving official amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. The Cabinet proposal allows child labour below the age of 14 years in family work, like agriculture or family enterprises. Also, an exception has been made for a child working as artist and in audio-visual entertainment industry including advertisements.

The argument of the Cabinet is that “while considering a total prohibition on the employment of child, it would be prudent to also keep in mind the country’s social fabric and socio-economic conditions. In a large number of families, children help their parents in their occupations like agriculture, artisanship etc. and while helping the parents, children also learn the basics of 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 that a child can help his family or family enterprise, which is other than any hazardous occupation or process, after his school hours or during vacation”.

“The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children” says W D Haywood. As all of us know, in the formative years, a child needs special care to realise his/her full potential for growth and development. Many international and national conventions /constitutions have been drafted with an intention to protect and help them attain a healthy and meaningful childhood and protect them from the vicious circle of social and economic exploitation.

Our Constitution makers were sagacious to provide various provisions in the Constitution to protect and promote the rights of children. For instance, Article 15 (3) of the Constitution provides for special provisions for women and children. Further in Article 23, it prohibits trafficking of humanbeings and beggary and other similar forms of forced labour. Article 24  has laid down that “no child under the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment”.

Article 39(e) and (f) requires the state to secure the tender age of children. And to ensure that they are not forced by an economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength. And that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner, with freedom and dignity. It also requires the state to protect children and youth  against exploitation and abuse, and, against moral and material abandonment.

Article 21-A recognises the Right to Education as a fundamental right and it mandates that, the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of age of six to fourteen years.

Above all, the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child under Article 32, states that, “Child Labour is work performed by a child that is likely to interfere with his or her right to education, or to be harmful to their health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

Many people in our society assume that child labour is a ‘necessary evil,’ and only the worst forms of child labour need to be addressed. According to Census of India, 2001, there were 12.26 million working children in the age group of 5-14 years as compared to 11.3 million in 1991. According to the Census of 2001, the share of these working children in the 5-14 years age group is 3.15 per cent totaling 12.6 million children. Of those who are main workers, 14.7 per cent reported attending schools and among the marginal workers 36.6 per cent were in schools.

Regressive legislation
Children working in the agriculture sector constitute two third of all child labour force in India and their percentage in rural child labour force is more than 75 per cent. Does it not indicate the fact that a large number of children are unable to cope up with the work as well as the schooling and therefore, compromise on education to join the labour force?

However, even with this hard reality, PM Modi and his colleagues in the Cabinet think that they will enact a legislation to “strike a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic condition and social fabric in the country by allowing children to help their families or family enterprise after school hours or during vacation.”
The above argument indicates that the proposed legislation is not only regressive but also reactionary, that takes us to “the Varnashrama System.” When we are in a progressive era of child rights and treating all human rights as child rights too, a regressive and reactionary proposal to amend the child labour legislation is uncalled for.
Instead, all forms of child labour up to the age of 18 years must be abolished without any distinction between hazardous or non-hazardous occupations in accordance with the definition of a child being 18 years, as laid down in the UNCRC and the National Policy for Children 2013.

To conclude in the words of Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General, “Few human rights abuses are so widely condemned, yet so widely practiced; Let us make (child labour) a priority. Because a child in danger is a child that cannot wait.”

(The writer is Fellow and Programme Head, Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University)

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