Imperfect sympathy

Published : Sep 08, 2006 00:00 IST

The ban on child labour in eateries and households may not become effective in the absence of adequate rehabilitation mechanisms.


CHOTU works in a tea shop in the heart of New Delhi, in the parking lot of a prominent newspaper establishment. He claims he goes to school but is often seen ferrying tea through the day until 8 p.m. He works like a machine; his age and energy are indispensable to his employer, who insists that he does not want to go to school. Chotu is a generic name for thousands of children working in such establishments and eateries in most parts of India. They are often seen outdoors, washing utensils, serving food, and taking orders from the owners as well as customers. A very large number of girls are also among the child workforce. They are mostly domestic helps, sometimes accompanying their mothers and sometimes working alone.

What these children do may not necessarily constitute hazardous work under its conventional definition, but according to a Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Labour headed by the Director-General, Indian Council of Medical Research, they are involved in such work. The committee recommended their inclusion in occupations prohibited for persons below 14 years of age under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. It observed that these children were subjected to physical violence, psychological torture and at times even sexual abuse. These incidents, it opined, went unreported and unnoticed as they often took place within the confines of houses, dhabas (roadside eateries) or restaurants. The committee also observed that these children worked for long hours, were made to undertake hazardous activities affecting their health and psyche severely and that those working in roadside eateries were the most vulnerable to sex and drug abuse.

Based on the recommendations, the Union government decided on August 1 to prohibit employment of children as domestic servants or servants in dhabas, restaurants, hotels, motels, tea shops, resorts, spas or in recreation centres. The ban has been imposed under the 1986 Act and will be effective from October 10, 2006. Anyone found employing children in these categories will be liable to prosecution under the Child Labour Act.

What is surprising is that it took so long for the government to realise that there was a problem at hand with regard these children. Either the governments at the Centre and in the States were oblivious of the growing multitudes of children in such occupations, or despite such knowledge they turned a blind eye to this kind of exploitation. While the ambit of what constitutes hazardous work and what does not needs to be constantly expanded given the myriad forms of exploitation of child labour, the policy of the government has been somewhat restricted to banning employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines and hazardous forms of work and to regulating the working conditions of children in other forms of employment.

According to figures received from the office of the Registrar-General of India, in 2001 there were 1.26 crore working children in the 5-14 age group as compared to 1.13 crore in 1991. The State-wise distribution shows that the largest number of working children were found in Uttar Pradesh (0.19 crore), followed by Andhra Pradesh (0.14 crore), Rajasthan (0.13 crore) and Bihar (0.10 crore). The bulk of child labour was found in agriculture and agriculture-related activities such as cultivation, livestock rearing, forestry and fishery. Evidently, unless drastic measures are taken, the numbers are likely to swell by the next Census.

While most sections involved with child rights and the elimination of child labour have welcomed the ban, they are sceptical about its successful implementation given the lack of convictions under the present Act. Secondly, the record of the Centre has been rather poor as far as the "gateways of opportunity" for poor people are concerned. This term, which figures in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report "The End of Child Labour: Within Reach", includes development efforts focussing on the reduction of poverty, a minimum age of employment and the provision and extension of compulsory education, among other things.

The National Policy on Child Labour (NPCL) will be two decades old in 2007 and the country is nowhere near the elimination or even the mitigation of child labour. The policy was formulated with the understanding that to eliminate child labour, a gradual and sequential approach was needed with its focus first on the rehabilitation of children in hazardous occupations and processes. In 1988, the National Child Labour Project was launched, initially in nine districts. It was extended subsequently to 250 districts. Subsequent to the August 1 notification, the Labour Ministry plans to strengthen and expand its rehabilitation scheme under the NPCL beyond the 250 districts. This scheme was basically about providing special schools for child workers, where formal and non-formal education would be provided along with vocational training, a small stipend, supplementary nutrition and health check-ups with the larger objective of helping them to be part of mainstream schools.

The scheme was evaluated in 2001 and a strategy to implement it was devised in the 10th Plan. This included linking child labour elimination efforts with the scheme of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to ensure that children in the 5-8 age group got admitted directly to regular, mainstream schools and that the older children were inducted into the formal education system under special schools functioning under the NPCL scheme.

A recent report submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to the government on the situation of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan paints a dismal picture. Four years since the implementation of the campaign, the CAG report says, the government has managed to get only 40 per cent of children in the age-group 6-14 into school. The rest continue to be out of school and presumably engaged in some form of work. The report also points out that the supervision and monitoring of the scheme was ineffective at both the national and State levels; that a large number of schools in most of the States and Union Territories were functioning without buildings; that the budget estimates and revised estimates were far less than the original outlays approved by the Department of Elementary Education and literacy; and that funds were regularly diverted to schemes other than those related to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan activities.

While there is a debate on whether all kinds of child work is exploitative or not, most persons agree that there is an intrinsic link between elimination of child labour, elimination of poverty and retention of children in schools. Organisations such as Social Jurist, a civil rights group working on child labour and the right to education, opine that the notification by itself cannot be taken seriously when the government has failed to enact legislation to implement the 86th Amendment to the Constitution which made education a fundamental right. The Amendment was carried out in 2002. Soon after massive efforts were initiated to get a piece of Central legislation in place. This was the minimum that was expected from the government. It seems now that the Centre has more or less given up the idea of enacting any legislation.

The draft Bill guaranteeing free and compulsory education was hardly introduced despite going through a lot of changes and brainstorming by educationists and child rights campaigners. Instead the government has circulated a model Bill to the State governments and that too with a caveat. Ashok Aggarwal, advocate for Social Jurist, said that the States that adopted the model Bill in toto would get 75 per cent funding for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan while the ones that did not would have the Central allocation to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan slashed to 50 per cent.

Another prominent organisation working in the area of child rights, Child Rights and You (CRY), while welcoming the notification, stated that the ban was not sufficient. The notification, a statement from CRY said, was limited in its ambit. The prohibition was restricted to domestic helps, hotels, dhabas and recreation centres; it did not cover the household manufacturing sector. Secondly, no enforcement mechanisms had been spelt out, nor had any provision for rehabilitation been specified. Thirdly, it was felt that the notification was premised on the notion that child labour needed to be banned only in hazardous occupations.

The government's intention to ban child labour must be matched with action on the ground. It cannot dissociate the elimination of child labour from the quality of education it doles out to the children of lower-income groups. It is estimated that there are 10 crore children under the age of 14 who are out of school and engaged in some form of work; Social Jurist estimates that in Delhi alone there are 15 lakh such child workers. Moreover, there have been numerous instances documented by Social Jurist of government schools turning away children prepared by the learning centres under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. It is clear that merely increasing the number of districts under the NPCL scheme or declaring an intent will not arrest the growing number of child labourers. The problem lies very much with the government's attitude to child labour itself.

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