The recent ban on
employing children under 14 came into force on October 10.
Almost a month after the amended Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act came into force in India, 13-year-old Babul is doing exactly what he was doing before October 10 — washing dishes and helping the lady of the house where he is employed as a domestic servant.
The only change in the life of this frail-looking migrant from an obscure village on the Orissa-Bihar border is that now he has a birth certificate, duly signed by authorities concerned, which his placement agent has recently given to his employers, a middle class, double-income family in West Delhi.
The certificate shows Babul to be a 15-year-old. He has been tutored to repeat that he is 15 if someone asks his age and also told that if he makes a mistake, he will lose the opportunity to earn the Rs 800, food and the hand-me-downs he get every monththat his family needs.
The lady of the house is also clear that Babul and his family need the money and she needs help at home. By working for her, she feels, Babul gets three square meals a day, money and is gainfully employed. "We do not abuse him the way it happens in many other homes...you can ask him. Moreover, what will happen to him if he does not work?" It is time to do a reality check on the ban.
Scope of the ban
The Child labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was recently amended by the government and it now includes child domestic work as a form of hazardous labour. It states that action can be taken against those who employ children up to the age of 14 in domestic work, including homes, hotels, motels, tea shops, resorts or any other recreational centre.
The law earlier banned the employment of children below 14 years in in factories, mines, considered hazardous for their health and well-being (13 processes and 57 occupations). Domestic child labour is the 58th occupation added to the Act.
Without getting into a dismissive mode on this well-meaning Act, the fact is there appears little cheer in store for crores of working children, whose future, several NGOs working in the field say, will become uncertain in the absence of a comprehensive rehabilitation package.
Coordinator of 24-hour helpline Childline, Shanta Nath, is certain that successful implementation of the Act will just not be possible in the absence of a rehabilitation programme for rescued children.
"It would not be a success unless we are able to successfully rehabilitate rescued children. Some of them are the sole earners of their families. Where will they go? Taking steps to prevent child labour is not enough, it will be difficult for implementing agencies to locate domestic workers unless society is sensitised." (Remember Babul. He is still working because his employees do not think they are doing anything wrong).
The decision to ban employment of children as domestic help or servants even in non-hazardous jobs was taken on the recommendation of the Technical Advisory Committee on Child Labour, headed by the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research. According to the findings of the Committee, children working as domestic help were often subjected to physical violence, psychological trauma and, at times, even sexual abuse. Such incidents go unnoticed as they take place in confines.
As the government gets set to crack the whip, doubts arise on the feasibility of the ban without a rehabilitation plan in place. Questions abound on how the government plans to effectively implement the Act.
The Labour Ministry has warned that anyone employing children in these occupations will be liable for prosecution and other penal action under the law. Necessary support has been sought from state governments in enforcing the ban. Government employees have been prohibited from engaging children as domestic help and a notification has been issued that anyone employing children would be liable to prosecution and other penal action, including fine and a one-year jail term.
It is holding zonal-level meetings to sensitise the state-level officials concerned, civil society organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders. It has also requested other Central Government ministries for infrastructural support towards the rehabilitation of rescued children.
A 24-hour toll-free helpline —1098—is accessible in 72 cities and the Ministry is also planning to expand the rehab scheme under the National Child Labour Project, which covers 250 districts of the country which have a maximum of child labour.
Clearly, the government expects the ban to go a long way in ameliorating the condition of millions of hapless working children. The problem here is not of hundreds, or thousands, or even lakhs of children. It is the problem of a huge figure, which some agencies peg at a whopping 120 million. What is the government going to do with these children that it intends to rescue.
India is home to the largest number of working children in the world. As per UNICEF report, World’s Children 2006, India has the largest number of working children.
Author of Child Labour in India, the only authoritative book on child labour, Lakshmidhar Mishra offers some simple mathematics to understand the extent of what he terms as "essentially a social problem." He says there are 200 million households in the country. Now even if 10 per cent of these households employ child labour, the number of domestic child labour in the country could be 20 million.
The 2001 Census estimates 12.05 million children out of school and involved in labour. Some other estimates point that there are between 60 and 115 million working children in India. This is clearly a huge figure that cannot be wished away overnight. Predicting an accurate domestic child labour figure is difficult as in Delhi alone there are four to five lakh children employed in hazardous labour.
"Child labour, says Gerry Pinto, a specialist in Child Rights and Advisor, Butterflies, an NGO, is a development issue. Children forced into labour and exploited while not receiving education crucial to their development negates all pronouncements made by the government and sections of society to the promotion and protection of children’s rights".
Getting back to numbers, 85 per cent of the rural child labourers work in cultivation and agriculture. Forty per cent of the urban children are employed in manufacturing, repair, carpet-making, tea plantation, gems polishing, fire works, etc, and the rest in homes, dhabas, road-side eateries, etc. The largest number of children in urban areas is employed with domestic service, hotels and hospitality sector.
The reasons why a child gets pushed into labour are many but poverty has the most obvious relationship with child labour. In some cases, one-third of the family’s income is from children. Absence of social welfare schemes and the fact that child labour is cheaper makes things worse for children. Factors that contribute to this are caste and lack of schools.
Moreover, the attitude of parents and civil society further justifies the existence of child labour—like this oft-repeated question, "What will happen to these children if they do not work?"
"Child labour is a direct fall-out of migrating population in India. There are 30 million people on the move in India. Why are states not taking the responsibility to find out why parents are migrating? At least, see that rural employment schemes are implemented properly," says Mishra.
A majority of children are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, all backward states. It is the poor infrastructure at home that forces the children out of the family and community into the web of labour. A large number of children are mortgaged in Gadwa and Palmau in Bihar to work in Bhadoi, Varanasi, Muzzaffarpur, says Mishra.
Trafficking of child labour is so rampant that at times children as young as five are trafficked in Mumbai and Delhi to work in hazardous trades.
Most of them come from historically backward groups like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and Muslims.
Another reason for scepticism is that the ban will only push children on streets, while some will be rescued from one city, only to be pushed to another as labour.
It is evident that most of these children do not have an ideal family situation, so the question remains what will these children be returning to.
In the past there have been cases where children who are sent home return back to shelter homes as they do not get the facilities back home.
Now take the example of Delhi, which reportedly has at least five lakh children at work but the government is able to offer long-term shelter to only about 1500 children. In fact, there is not even a single residential school in the Capital so one can very well imagine the situation elsewhere. Before any hopes are raised to make the law more effective, the country needs residential schools and children homes that offer long-term shelter.
Says Pinto, "It is not an issue concerning the Ministry of Labour but a social issue where the core problem is poverty, which governments have failed to tackle.
"Instead of tackling the disease, what the government is doing is fiddling with symptoms of child labour`85.To put it more simply, it is like treating malaria with PCM".
Domestic child labour has roots in nuclear families in urban cities. With both the husband and wife working, some cheap labour is required to help out at home. "The problem can be solved only by society. The most constructive response would be—Call your Chotu (or whatever his name is). Tell him that things have now changed and the government has become very strict and even if he wants to continue working, he cannot do so anymore.
Ask him where his parents are and tell him that if someone else in his family wants a job, you can help out. Buy him a train ticket. Write a letter or somehow inform his family. Tell him you are willing to pay Rs 100 a month to help him go to school. I am sure we can all spare Rs 100 a month. If we can suddenly do Gandhigiri, we can also do this. A child needs to work in rural areas in their own farmland and household, provided he also gets to go to school but not as domestic help in urban households. As is the practice in developed countries, learn to do your own work. And if you have money, employ an adult. But one can never justify the evil of child labour in any civilised society. The society should understand this for the proper implementation of the ban," he says. Mishra also feels that society has to be sensitised towards the issue. "The problem is that civil society remains indifferent to most issues. People should learn to receive the waves, the stimuli and react in a stimulated way so that their sensitivities are awakened and they do not remain like wooden blocks."
The way out
Mishra stresses that so much damage has been done by the till-now lackadaisical approach that the country now needs a 100 per cent prohibitory ban, sans regulations.
"What I would recommend is a complete ban and not half-hearted attempts. Prohibition is possible only if we talk with one energy, one voice. Right now we are on faulty premises, trying to enforce prohibitions with regulations. What is required is one force at one go. Maybe, there can be pitfalls but we will learn. Though India has remained committed against child labour, the basic stand has always been that it is not possible to abolish it completely."
In 1933, the Pledging of Children Labour Act was enacted on the recommendations of the Royal Commission. In the two-page Act, with limited dimensions, it was stated that parents had no moral right to pledge the services of children for any consideration.
The Employment of Children Act, 1938, was again limited in dimension, combining prohibition with regulations. "It tolerated child labour but with regulated hours," says Mishra.
The Minimum Wages Act of 1948 permitted children four and a half hours of work, half of the nine hours recommended for an adult, with 50 per cent wages. "The view was taken that 100 per cent prohibition is neither possible nor desirable so it has to be a combination of prohibitions with regulations," he adds.
In 1986, the Employment of Children Act was repealed and Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act enacted, which prohibited the employment of children below 14 years in specific hazardous works and processes. But again, to understand the definition of hazardous work, one had to refer to the Section 87 of the Factories Act and consult the Constitution to know what work is suited for which age.
A clear-cut definition of child labour in hazardous works does not exist till date, making it more mandatory for 100 per cent prohibitory approach with a planned and integrated approach, at least now.
Without providing these children with a viable alternative, the government, if it cracks the whip, will make them more vulnerable to exploitation. There is likely to be more violence against children as once this legitimate way of earning a living is gone. They might be forced to beg, steal indulge in drug trafficking, etc.
To avoid a catch-22 situation where a child might be left to choose between the devil and the deep sea, Pinto recommends countering this social evil in a phased out manner. "The country has enough resources. Target poverty alleviation and rural development programmes correctly at families. The aim should be to gradually make India child-friendly by putting money in the right place and not opt for knee-jerk reactions. It is important to develop a multi-stakeholder approach in a concerted manner where all concerned stakeholders have a clear role in the protection of affected children’s rights". It should be ensured that no child is left unidentified, employers are motivated to voluntarily release children and resources made available for these children’s travel to their homes.
" Efforts should be made to ensure that children stay back in their homes after restoration and legal action ensured against employers who employ children forcefully or clandestinely even after the deadline."
A majority of domestic workers in the country are in the 12 to 16 years age group, which is why NGO Save the Children also questions the limiting of the Act to domestic labour up to 14 years. It stressed that the cut-off limit needs to be raised to 18 years. According to representatives, the Act needs to widen its scope to protect children. According to the Manager, Save the Children, the recent amendment suggests action against anyone who employs children under 14 years in domestic work either in homes or hotels. "But our research shows that 74 per cent of the child domestic workers are between 12 and 16 years, and they, at times, are also victims of sexual abuse. This amendment leaves a large chunk of child domestic workers out in the cold.