Legislating social change

| Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on May 17, 2015

Making child labour illegal without addressing root causes will drive it underground

The Centre’s move to amend the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, which makes it illegal to employ children under the age of 14 in any kind of labour, commercial work or paid employment, but allows children to be employed in family business, hereditary occupations or family farms, entertainment and sports — with the proviso that this can happen only outside of school hours — is a good example of the morass that policymaking can get into when one attempts to legislate social change without addressing the underlying issues. In the first place, the amendments became necessary so that the existing child labour law did not come in conflict with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, that had made education a fundamental right for all children in the age group of 6-14 years. Activists have been quick to lambast the move, claiming that by exempting certain types of work, the Act will give legal sanctity to the use of child labour. They point out that a bulk of child labour is in any case employed in ‘home’ businesses, ranging from farming to traditional handicrafts, beedi rolling, gem cutting and polishing, jewellery making, or petty shops and eateries. They also argue that the law will further weaken education for girls. Some of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu have even objected to the move on the grounds that this will pave the way for the return of caste discrimination, disguised as “hereditary education”. Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi has argued that child labour is exploitative and perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which can only be broken when children are given appropriate skill-based education.

While all these criticisms are valid, they do not pay enough attention to the fundamental aspect of the child labour problem: the economic imperative. Several studies have established that a majority of families use child labour in order to reach subsistence levels. A 2013 study of the impact of India’s landmark child labour law by Prashant Bharadwaj, Leah K Lakdawala, and Nicholas Li for the US National Bureau of Economic Research ( Perverse Consequences of Well Intentioned Regulation: Evidence from India’s Child Labor Ban) found that after the ban, child labour increased, school enrolment fell, and family welfare, measured by household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, actually fell after the ban went into effect. In other words, the earlier law made the situation worse, so tightening it poses the risk of worsening the situation further.

Poverty is the principal driver of child labour around the world and any meaningful attempt at reducing this must necessarily focus on addressing subsistence constraints first. A balanced approach, which ensures at least minimum social security to poor families, while ensuring that education becomes a realisable right by creating adequate infrastructure, will achieve the objective without criminalising parents compelled by poverty to put their children to work. That said, both the Centre and State governments need to ensure that enforcement improves, so that those exploiting children for commercial gain are punished. Otherwise, this law will join the long list of rights and protections we enjoy on paper.

Published on May 17, 2015
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