India’s much awaited ratification of ILO Conventions 138 and 182—which, respectively, provide the minimum age of 18 years for employment and prohibits work likely to jeopardise health, safety and morals of young persons and the worst forms of child labour including slavery like practices, trafficking and bonded labour etc.—have been most appropriately applauded by child rights activists, including our friend, the Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. I recall our prolonged discussions on this issue with the ILO global chief Guy Ryder last year, before he met the Prime Minister to sensitise and obtain his acceptance.
Led by the NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) on 12 June, the World Day Against Child Labour, along with many others who work to protect, look after and rehabilitate the children at work, we also discussed the recently amended Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, alongside the two Conventions and several other issues relating to these children under extremely difficult circumstances and in need of care and protection. These children are estimated to be over 30 million in the country.
Although, the Nobel Laureate and our friends in the government have endorsed the amended child labour law and its timing with the ILO Conventions, there are strong reservations about the contradictions arising out of the situation and divergent provisions in other laws including the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, which happens to be the basic law for children up to 18 years in the country. Incidentally, in complete agreement with the UNCRC and SDG Goals, which protect and provide for universal primary and secondary education for all children, the government has planned out multiple programmes, but the definition of child under the new child labour law is only up to 14 years, in sync with the RTE Act, 2009. The odd introduction of the term “adolescent” for children between 14 to18 years creates a lacuna.
Since the enactment of the amended child labour law in 2016, serious debates have been going on about the provisions under which a child is employed and permitted to help in his family or family enterprises, other than the hazardous occupations and processes set forth in the Schedule of the 1986 Act, after school hours and during vacations. The child is also permitted to work as an artist in the audio-visual entertainment industry, including advertisements, films, television series and sports, except circus, subject to conditions and safety measures. The majority of people working in child related programmes and activities are finding it extremely difficult to reconcile the children’s right to education, their leisure and well being with the amended law, particularly in respect of the millions of children who are routinely found to be working under huge socio-economic compulsions from their poverty driven families. The law, in a way, denies normal childhood to such children by putting them to work beyond school hours. Under the JJ Act, children in need of care and protection; or those without home, settled abode; or ostensible means of subsistence; street, working and begging children, etc.; or those who are being abused, exploited for unconscionable gains, are none other than the working children who are required to be legally protected, but remain outside the coverage of the amended child labour law.
There appears to be a systemic shift in the process of defining a child, compromising the safety net of 18 years, as provided under various laws and policies. Allowing the employment of children below 18 years could be justified under the cover of skilling, but the national policy on skilling also suggests skilling integrated with formal education, and cannot be a substitute.
This anomalous situation was appreciated by Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, with an assurance to correct the same through the Rules and the Schedule that provide for the prohibited occupations and processes in respect of children. Earlier, as Schedule to the child labour law, there were 18 occupations and 65 processes that were prohibited for children, and we had expected that all of them would remain prohibited for children (termed adolescents) under the amended Act as well. However, the said Schedule has now been divided in two parts, wherein the Part A meant for children and adolescents cover mines and collieries, inflammable substances and several hazardous industries excluding many others through Part B, which is meant only for children up to 14 years. By implication, the children in the age group of 14 to 18 years are being exposed to various hazardous occupations and processes, like all forms of unemployable railway activities as porters, cinder picking, ash pit cleaning, constructions, catering; crackers, fireworks, automobiles, garages, domestic workers and servants, dhabas, eating places, mica cutting etc.—59 of them.
There appears to be a systemic shift in the process of defining a child, compromising the safety net of 18 years, as provided under various laws and policies. Allowing the employment of children below 18 years could be justified under the cover of skilling, but the national policy on skilling also suggests skilling integrated with formal education, and cannot be a substitute. In other words, it clearly means that a child may be skilled from age 14, but he will have to wait for proper jobs unless he or she is 18.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clearly enunciated his view that much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 16.3 calls for promoting the rule of law at the national and international level and ensuring equal justice for all. But how will this be achieved, without ensuring an environment that is friendly to children and which guarantees their rights given under the time-tested JJ Act, which is the corner-stone of all laws related to children in this country?
India may well have ratified the ILO conventions, but the recent legislations passed by our government, either through oversight or lack of proper information about the inherent contradictions, are putting the clock back. These lacunae must be taken care of before it is too late and the future of our children is jeopardised. The message between the lines, rather than the written word itself, has to be looked at more seriously, which has, unfortunately, been lost in the plethora of welcome arches and speeches.
Amod K. Kanth, a retired bureaucrat, is General Secretary of Prayas, a non-profit organisation, which aims to protect the rights of marginalised children, women and young people.