If the objective of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, is taken as the base to define child labour, then it may be defined thus: the employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous occupations is to be regarded as child labour.
The number of hazardous occupations listed under the act has increased from seven to thirteen. According to the report, Abolition of Child Labour in India: Strategies for the Eleventh Five Year Plan , submitted by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to the Planning Commission, the Government has recently added children working as domestic help and working in roadside eateries in the list of hazardous occupations.
The Act was implemented by means of the National Child Labour Programme (NCLP) which consists of the identification of child labourers by means of large-scale surveys, withdrawing them from work and enrolling them into special schools to prepare them to be a part of the mainstream education system. Apart from education, the children are also provided with a stipend of Rs 100 per month along with vocational training, proper balanced diet and health check-ups on a regular basis.
However, the NCPCR report points out some glaring loopholes in the 1986Act.
First, it prohibits only those occupations which it regards as hazardous and only regulates the working conditions of the rest. Therefore, it has no jurisdiction over children working for their own families. It has also left out children employed in the agricultural sector.
Second, at the centre of the Act is the notion that children engage in hazardous and non-hazardous occupations because they are poor and their impoverished families cannot survive without the extra income from their wages. So the prevalent view is that total eradication of child labour is impossible without the elimination of poverty.
But this view ignores the fact that the income of the children is too meagre to have any significant effect on the economic condition of their families.
Third, the report also points out that it is because of the increasing number of children in the labour market that adult wages are on a steady decline.
Fourth, it becomes evident from the results of the NCLP that targeting children in some particular sector will not decrease the number of child labourers; neither will it shrink the child work force in the ‘hazardous’ sector.
Now, the UPA cabinet has approved amendments to the Act. There is a blanket ban on employing children for any work in all industries, farms or at home. Henceforth, those between 14 and 18 years of age are regarded as adolescents and their recruitment as workers in hazardous sectors such as mines, chemical plants, and explosive factories is prohibited.
The 1986 Act also contradicted the aims of the Right to Education Act which guarantees free and compulsory education to all children in the age group 6 to 14 years.
But child labour cannot be eliminated by legislation alone; what it requires is proper implementation of the law. Only complete social awareness, accompanied by stringent implementation of the law, can eliminate child labour from India.
(Soumya is a postgraduate from Presidency College, Kolkata, and passed out of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)