The Labour Ministry has recently finalized the amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment (CLPRA) Bill, which proposes complete prohibition of employment of children up to the age of 14 years while banning employment of children between 15-18 years in hazardous works.

We all have seen children working at tea stalls and roadside eateries, hurriedly serving tea and cleaning glasses. While we affectionately talk to them and ask them if they go to school, is it okay to presume that our duty ends at merely being polite to them? Has child labor become such an integral part of our lives that we’ve refused to acknowledge it for the horrific crime that it is?

Even more shocking is the variation in reported statistics of child labor between government and non-government surveys. According to a report by International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, there are as many as 60 million children working in India. The number surpasses by far the Indian Census report, which claimed 12.6 million children were working in the country.

It is highly unlikely that child laborers in the country rose from 12.6 million to 60 million in just a decade. Proposed solutions to child labor today are based on guesstimates by policy makers, nonprofits, and researchers. So much for #BigData.

Currently, an estimated 14% of children between the ages of 5-14 years in India are engaged in child labor, according to statistics by UNICEF. According to Maplecroft’s The Child Labour Index 2012, India ranks 27th in country-level child labor practices.

Prime Minister Modi’s home state boasts the highest proportion of child labor in the country. The UNICEF 2011 report claims that Gujarat has 30% of the working child labour population while Kerala has the lowest at 3%.

In 2006, the amendment to the Child Labour Act 1986 made it illegal to employ children in homes as domestic workers and those employed at hotels and dhabas.

The Right To Education Act, which aims to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 6-14 years, only solidified the maneuver of Child Labour Act in keeping children focused on education instead of menial work.

Despite the fact that these two laws fall in sync with each other, the number of child laborers in India has only increased. So where could we have gone wrong?

1. Lack of identification

The issue begins with the fact that age identification of children is a difficult task in India due to the lack of identification documents. Child laborers often lack school registration certificates and birth certificates, creating an easy loophole in the law to exploit.

2. Do our child labourers really want to be “rescued”?

The word “rescue” here is open to debate because many children voluntarily choose work as an option as they battle financial constraints and hunger. Thus, unless we can ensure that our child laborers are provided better livelihood options, chances are that they will continue to find work.

3. Lack of rehabilitation policy

There is little rehabilitation policy for children “rescued” from child labour. The government certainly needs to do more than simply cut them away from work. A 16 years old child, when “rescued” from child labour, cannot simply be expected to rejoin school.

While the new bill seeks to provide vocational training to rehabilitated children, the viability of this training is questionable. Children who are above the age of 15 will most likely find it difficult to acquire a new skill. Moreover, the employability of youth with vocational training will be significantly low, as 32% of graduate youth alone remained unemployed in 2012-13.

This bill, if passed, will raise the fine, increase the jail term, and make parents liable for punishment on repeat offense of employing their child. There is no doubt to the fact that the bill will act as a powerful deterrent against child labor. But is creating a tougher law the way to tackle this issue? Or is there a larger need to work towards a society which minimally requires to use those laws?

Today I spoke to Praveen, an 18-year-old tea vendor who works near my office. When I asked him why he was working instead of going to school, he said, “I left school when I was in 6th standard because my family could not afford to educate me. Today I work as a tea vendor but I’m able to support my two younger siblings’ education. I am lucky enough to continue my education with correspondence too. I study in 11th standard.”

In Praveen’s case, his work allowed him to continue his education through correspondence and to educate his two siblings as well. Nothing justifies child labor, but making children sit at home while they starve is not a solution either. There is a larger question – if we were successful in providing a safe and secure environment for our children to thrive without worrying about hunger and starvation, would so many children choose to give up education for work?


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