I recently received the news that President Pranab Mukherjee has approved the child labour Bill – this when activists are voicing their concerns about what disturbing status quo the Bill would protect.
About a few weeks ago, in July, Ruchira Gupta was almost in tears when we met at the India International Centre in New Delhi. “This country will never think about its poor, especially its children who are from poor communities. They will never matter,” she said. The Rajya Sabha had just passed the child labour Bill that day.
Ruchira, who is an abolitionist, an Emmy award winning journalist, an academic and the founder of the anti-sex trafficking organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide, immediately called for a consultation thereafter to discuss the Bill and come up with suggestions and feedback to be shared with the Parliamentarians before it was placed in the Lok Sabha, apprehensive at the same time that the Lok Sabha, where the government has its strength, would pass the Bill without a cough. And that’s what happened the following week. Abolitionist and activist Tinku Khanna, who is the director of Apne Aap, told me that a few Parliamentarians had protested this Bill, though nothing happened.
Soon after, a campaign was organized by key activists like Harsh Mander (of Aman Biradari), Bharti Ali (of HAQ – Centre for Child Rights), Malini Bhattacharya, who heads AIDWA, the women’s wing of CPI(M), Gloria Steinem (eminent feminist organizer), Alice Walker (Pulitzer award winning author), Vimal Thorat (of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch), Chitra Sarkar (of All India Women’s Conference), Ruchira Gupta, Tinku Khanna and thousand other activists to reach out to President Mukherjee with a petition requesting the review of the Bill before it becomes an Act.
The petition had not yet reached the President, when he approved it. All this when Delhi has been abuzz with the campaign by activists protesting the Bill. It’s a shame that the country has come to a time when the people who have been working relentlessly, fighting odds, to better lives are not consulted before a Bill is drafted, and are ignored when they comment about a Bill.
Talking of the Child Labour Bill, activists point out how it will continue to trap children from the socially, politically and economically disadvantageous communities in the cycle of poverty and helplessness. A press release by Apne Aap Women Worldwide on the passage of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 states: ‘The Act has legalized 90 % of India’s child labour by legalizing child labor in “family and family-based enterprises” and “audio-visual entertainment”. In a shameless hoax, the Act claims to have made child labour illegal under 18 and to have imposed fines up to Rs 50,000 on employers, but in reality it has removed all age limits in the so-called “Family and Family-based enterprises”. Tragically, it has shortened the list of hazardous occupations for children. Now children can be employed in mixing dangerous chemicals, working as sharecroppers in fields, on construction sites, brick kilns, circuses, orchestra parties etc.
In contradiction to the Juvenile Justice Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Act has no provision to protect children in need. On the contrary, it does not define number of work hours for children. This will result in poor, low caste children being pushed to long work hours and an increase in school drop-out.
Sadly, poor low caste parents are to be fined Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 for not sending their children to school, after/before these working hours. Since these parents are already debt slaves of contractors, landlords and employers they will be punished for something they have no control over.
Compounded with the government cut of 50% of its budget for women and children and 28% for education, leading to the closure of mid-day meals and boarding schools for poor low caste children, this will have a devastating impact on India’s children for generations.
There are 1,01,28,663 child labourers in the country between the age group of 5 to 14 years as per 2011 Census (43,53,247 as main workers and 57,75,416 as marginal workers, i.e. working for less than six months in a year). 80 per cent of them are Dalits and the rest 20 per cent are from backwards castes. Many of these children work with families who are in debt bondage, enslaved by contractors and unscrupulous landlords. They have no bargaining power to keep children at home or send them to school. This Act will lock our children in caste-based occupations further.’
Looking at the situation at hand, I want to echo what my father (who is not a social activist, has not been trained in the social sciences) said in the morning today. An Act like this is possible only when we think of our ‘own’ children; and don’t care if others’ children are not going to schools, will never have an opportunity to step out of traditional caste based occupations. And it has to be pointed out here that some family based occupations can be very dangerous like prostitution among certain caste communities in India, beedi-making, etc. Isn’t it time that we raised our voices for each and every child? So each child is entitled to certain hours of school, certain hours of play in a day? In family based enterprises (especially when most children as domestic help or in the tea stalls and dhabas by the highway address the employer as mother, father, uncle and aunt in India) and in the entertainment industry, who would be monitoring these factors?