The way the world’s largest democracy addresses the issue of child labour is fraught with contradictions and New Delhi will do good to take a leaf or two out of the experience of other developing countries
Ordinary, he may appear to you but he has an enthralling voice. Pouring endless cups of tea while the customers have their gaze transfixed on him, he goes about his daily work. It’s another day at work for Salim at a small tea shack near the Ghaziabad District Court in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The song never stops, the lyrics are incoherent but one can’t help but take notice of the nine year old. Salim would never be a rockstar, nor will he take part in any reality show. He is one of India’s millions of child labourers.
Salim is not alone. According to International Labour Organization’s 2014 estimate, there are 40 million child labourers employed in various capacities across India. We often see them on roads, on streetside shacks, in the fields or in someone’s home, doing errands or serving someone else’s needs. It is them who hold the key to the future but yet, their plight goes unnoticed, their dignity is not acknowledged.
Back in the 19th century, Charles Dickens penned a story, truly depicting the ominous state of European nations back then. Oliver Twist, story of an orphaned boy, essayed the stigma of prevailing child labour in erstwhile London.
Coming back to the 20th century, a task was designed to globally liberate children from all kinds of forced and bonded labour and guide them towards education.
A century later, while several European and non-European countries successfully eliminated child labour, major parts of Latin America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa continue to witness the barbaric practice.
But all the arguments that condemn child labour in any form aside, a small Latin American country has taken a big radical leap, defying global opinions.
On July 18, 2014, Bolivia became the first country in the world to legalise child labour. The Bill was approved by the Bolivian Congress and was signed into law by the Bolivian Vice-President.
Right since its announcement, the Bolivian legislation has been making headlines for allowing even a 10 year old to labour, though under parental supervision. Children, as young as 12, can be employed under contract.
Can India take a leaf out of the Bolivian chapter? Bolivia made education a necessary condition for children in order to obtain employment like India did by raising the age bar to 18 years in child labour law to accommodate the constitutional provisions of Right to Education (RTE).
Bolivia has extended security for its working children by consenting to 30 years of imprisonment for violence against children. The child labour law in India provisions maximum imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000.
The punishment laid down against the ‘unconstitutional’ child labour in India is in stark contrast with the scrupulous penalty laid down by the Bolivian government for the offenders even though they have ‘constitutionalised’ child labour.
Child rights activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, however, feels, “No argument can justify child labour. What is happening in Bolivia is very unfortunate. Bolivia has failed to give any choice to its children. Instead it took away whatever little choice they had.”
Unlike putting a clear mandate on 850,000 child labourers in Bolivia, activists argue that the child labour laws in India suffer from a bigger dichotomy.
Along with the 1986 Child Labour Act, there are various other laws which govern the exploitation of working children in India. However, none of them has put an outright ban on child labour, nor do they outline effective rehabilitation programmes.
According to a government official at the Ministry of Labour and Employment who did not want to be identified, “The labour department of India has asked for a complete ban on child labour. We have even rolled out a proposal in public domain asking for their suggestion regarding amendments. To encourage education, it is essential to completely ban child labour for children of up to 14 years of age.”
On further probing the discrepancy in dealing with the issue of child labour, the public official said, “Logically, all the government agencies dealing with the issues of children should come under the same umbrella. But since it involves labour issues, the matter has been entrusted with the labour department.” The official added, “When the new government was formed in India in 2014, proposals were internally rolled out to form one unified ministry to deal with the issue of child labour. However, with time, that proposal too faded.”
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that approximately 168 million children (aged 5-17 years) are still employed worldwide in 2014. India alone accounts for nearly 25 per cent of them.
The 2011 Census of India accounts for 4.3 million of working children (aged between 5 and 14 years) out of India’s 1.27 billion people and UNICEF have put the number at 28 million for the same period.
So there exists a massive disparity even between the data provided by national and international organisations.
“The problem of child labour is not new to India but with discrepancy between various data and the attitude of different departments, the issue has become critical. Even after so many years of Independence, India hasn’t been able to liberate its children from slavery,” believes Nishit Kumar, head of communication and strategic initiatives, Childline India Foundation.
Nishit argues that, “There are certain occupations which have clearly been forgotten under any clause of any law relating to child labour. Domestic work is classified as hazardous occupation and contrastingly, perilous work like working in fields which involves dealing with harmful biological and chemical agents has been left out of the interpretation.”
He also explained that since people from agricultural sector constitute a large part of the vote bank, it becomes essential for the government to classify the sector as non-hazardous to ensure a steady supply of child labourers. ILO primarily asserts child labour as an ‘agricultural issue’ in many countries. Globally around 60 per cent of child labourers (aged between five and 17 years) are involved in agriculture and related activities. This amounts to over 98 million girls and boys worldwide. ILO has also stressed that ‘agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of work-related fatalities, non-fatal accidents and occupational diseases.’
In India more than 70 per cent of the below-18 population is employed in agriculture. Will it be effective if child labour is put under legal scrutiny? Children belonging to economically weaker sections of India are mostly obligated to work. Can legalisation provide framework to their inevitable situation?
In 2012, the Delhi state government introduced a bill (The Draft Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill), banning agencies from deploying children under 18 years of age as domestic help. The Bill, however, has been not of any significant help as several illegal placement agencies still continue to thrive and exploit children for their business.
The trend is fast catching up in metropolitan cities where children from economically backward states are introduced by unregulated agencies into domestic slavery or even prostitution.
Dolly, a 13-year-old tribal girl from Orissa, was brought to Delhi two years back. She is employed as a full-time domestic worker. Initially lying about her true age, she revealed it few moments later. “I have studied till the eighth grade. I wanted to study more but then my school was destroyed in a flood. It was reconstructed but nothing remained the same.”
She further added, “My village faced a lot of problems during rehabilitation. It was never fully constructed. It was then that I decided I had to work. I was brought here by a placement agency. Now, I don’t want to study but I do want to go back someday.”
On other hand, amidst the battle of criticism and praise, concerns have been raised by the Bolivian population. Some have argued that how 78 officials will ensure that laws are not broken in employing 850,000 child labourers.
People feel that after exhausting themselves on fields and in factories, how will children be able to engage in learning? This concern has raised questions on the risk of missing out on proper education while jeopardising their chances for better employment in the future.
Is there an alternative which can break the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy rather than encouraging child labour?
During the late 1990s, Bangladesh took up the issue of child labour quite seriously. Children in Bangladesh were widely used in Bangladesh’s garment factories. Recognising the importance of the situation, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers’ Association (BGMEA), ILO and UNICEF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 1995 aimed at eliminating child labour in the garment industry.
Instead of immediately removing children from factories, an appropriate school programme was first put in place. The MOU prohibited factories from hiring or retaining children once school facilities were implemented.
Any future employment at garment factories were verified and monitored, referral of underage workers to NGO-run schools and a monthly maintenance income of 300 taka ($3.88 US) were given for children attending the school.
Monitoring teams paid regular visits to registered factories and interviewed workers. By April 1998, fewer than hundred child workers were found working in BGMEA factories, and in October 1998, only 35 children were found. In 2000, the gross enrolment in Bangladesh’s primary schools was about 116 per cent (IPECILO 2003).
In India, a similar National Child Labour Project (NCLP) provides education through specially designed Non-Formal Education (NFE) centres for child workers, rescued from hazardous working environments.
As per government data, there are around 6,000 such schools under operation and 1 million children have been provided with formal education under the scheme.
However, despite this, the marginalised Indian people continue to suffer from an inconsistent educational system. Undeniably, a significant proportion of India’s population is well educated but for the poor and rural children, education remains inaccessible, sub-standard and expensive.
Brazil’s ‘Bolsa Ecsola’ or more widely known as ‘Bolsa Familia’ scheme, a Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme, ensured the flow of cash and its utilisation to access basic social rights like education, health, social security etc. Brasilia formulated it as a welfare scheme targeted to counter poverty and its consequences including child labour.
The Brazilian government believed that child labour has a tendency to decline with economic prosperity. The availability of schools and small incentives, such as providing children with a meal in school or giving parents a subsidy for sending their children to school can further accelerate the process.
Child labour has not entirely vanished from Brazil but education rate has certainly gone up. It doesn’t mean that ‘Bolsa Familia’ has been a failure; instead CCT has been widely popular and effective in addressing poverty and as a consequence, child labour.
Graham Greene, the 20th century author, once said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” So, while Bolivia chose to address child labour upfront, will it be wise
to seek out the causes of child labour and eliminate them? Or should we just watch childhood slip and slide away?