To eradicate an evil

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Although there are sufficient laws in India to curb child labour, the machinery to enforce them remains largely inadequate.

CHILD labour can be broadly described as that segment of the child population which is engaged in paid or unpaid employment in a given situation. According to a report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the total number of working children in the age group of five to 14 years in developing countries is 250 million, of whom 120 million work on a full-time basis. As high as 61 per cent of working children are in Asian countries, followed by 32 per cent in Africa and a little over 7 per cent in Latin America.

In India, the problem is one of alarming dimensions. One in every five children below the age of 14 years is a labourer. There is no proper source for statistics on child labour: the only authentic source is the decennial Census. As per Census 1971 data, the number of working children in India was 10.7 million. The number went up to 13.6 million in 1981. The National Sample Survey Organisation's 43rd round of surveys, conducted between 1981 and 1991, revealed that the number of working children in India was 17.02 million in 1987-88. However, the 1991 Census put their number at 11.28 million, showing a decline of around 2.22 million from 1981. State-wise Census data revealed that Andhra Pradesh had the highest number of working children, 1.66 million, followed by Uttar Pradesh (1.41 million), Madhya Pradesh (1.35 million), and Maharashtra (1.06 million). Lakshadweep had the smallest number of working children (34).

Keeping in view the gigantic nature of the problem, the Government of India ratified six ILO conventions on working children and enacted laws to protect children from economic exploitation, and work that is likely to be hazardous to their health or physical, mental, moral or social development.

The Constitution of India has enough provisions in this regard. Article 24 says: "No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment." Similarly, Article 39 states: "The state shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing (e) that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age and strength, (f) that the children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment."

Article 45 includes a direction to provide free and compulsory education for children. It states: "The state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of 10 years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years." There are also a number of enactments to protect the interests of children. The employment of children below the age of 14 is prohibited under the Children (Pledging Labour) Act, 1933; (ii) the Factories Act, 1948, and the Mines Act, 1952; (iii) the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961; and (iv) the Bidi and Cigar Workers (Condition of Employment) Act, 1966. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951, prohibits the employment of child labour during night, that is, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Children are permitted to work in plantations only if a certificate of fitness is granted by a certifying surgeon. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, while allowing children to engage in family-based work or recognised school-based activities, prohibits their employment in activities concerned with passenger, goods or mail transport by the Railways; carpet weaving; cinder picking; cleaning of ash-pits; cement manufacturing, building and construction; cloth printing; dyeing; weaving; manufacture of matches, explosives and fireworks; catering establishments in Railway premises or port limits; bidi making; mica cutting and splitting; abattoirs; wool cleaning, cashewnut descaling and processing; soldering processes in electronic industries and other hazardous processes, dangerous operations, printing (as defined in the Factories Act, 1948) and so on.

Apart from the provisions on child labour that exist in the Acts of Parliament, there is the National Policy on Child Labour (NCLP) announced by the Union Ministry of Labour in August 1987. It is based on a three-tier action plan, which includes:

1. Legislative action: The Central and State governments are required to ensure on a continuous basis that the provisions of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the Factories Act, 1948, and the Mines Act, 1952, are enforced in relation to child labour. A Child Labour Technical Advisory Committee has been constituted by the Union Ministry of Labour to advise the Central government on the addition of occupations and processes to the schedule contained in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. In order to protect the interests of child workers, State governments have been authorised to frame rules under this Act.

2. Action on development programmes meant to benefit child labour: Government agencies are to implement the national development programmes formulated to cover the areas of education, health, nutrition, integrated child development and employment and income generation for the country's poor. Under the NCLP, it is necessary for the implementing agencies to focus on these programmes, wherever possible, to benefit child workers so that they may be encouraged to attend school.

3. Project-based action plan: Projects have been proposed for implementation in areas where the concentration of child labour is high. While such projects are area-specific and are required to be implemented at the micro level, projects that provide non-formal education to child labour extracted from hazardous occupations are certainly encouraged. This is so because the intention of the government is to attract working children to school. Projects that impart vocational training to child workers are also encouraged, and there is a provision to pay stipends to children who receive such training. Compensation is paid to parents whose children have been released from hazardous occupations in order to provide them non-formal education or vocational training.

The Ministry of Labour constituted the National Authority for Elimination of Child Labour (NAECL) on September 26, 1994, with the objective of withdrawing, through a suitable working mechanism, children engaged in hazardous occupations and to rehabilitate them through special schools. The NAECL has the Union Minister for Labour as its Chairman and the Secretaries of the Ministries/ Departments of Labour, Human Resource Development, Information and Broadcasting, Social Justice and Empowerment, Rural Development, Textiles, Expenditure, Health and Family Welfare and Women and Child Development as members. According to the annual report of the Ministry of Labour for 1999-2000, the objective of the NAECL is "to secure convergence of services for providing education, health and other inputs to children taken out of schools in a cost-effective manner by pooling the resources of various Ministries."

The Ministry of Labour set up in 1993 the National Resource Centre on Child Labour (NRCCL) at the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA, with the objective of creating a data bank on child labour and assisting the Central and State governments to develop schemes and programmes for the elimination of child labour. In its endeavour to eliminate child labour following the global programme introduced by the ILO in December 1991, the Ministry of Labour signed in 1992 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the ILO as one of its most important constituents on the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPECL). It also set up a National Steering Committee - of which the Labour Secretary is the Chairman - to implement child-labour-related projects connected with: (i) designing and evaluation for the implementation of programmes for the elimination of child labour: (ii) identification of projects for intervention at community and national levels; and (iii) creation of awareness and social mobilisation to secure the elimination of child labour. The Ministry of Labour has been trying to monitor the enforcement of various laws on child labour at the national level. It also tries to ensure that the programmes earmarked for the welfare of child workers were implemented in toto, meeting the global spirit and philosophy of ILO conventions on child labour.

In a landmark judgment on the exploitation of children, the Supreme Court of India stated: "Our Constitution-makers, wise and sagacious as they were, had known that the India of their vision would not be a reality if the children of the country are not nurtured and educated. For, their exploitation by different profit makers for their personal gain had to be indicted. It is this need which has found manifestation in Article 24 as the fundamental right against exploitation. The framers were aware that this prohibition alone would not permit the child to contribute its mite to the national building work unless it receives at least basic education. Article 45 was therefore inserted in our paramount parchment casting a duty on the state to endeavour to provide free and compulsory education to the children. It is known that the provision after the decision by this Constitution of this court has acquired the status of a fundamental right."

An estimated 106.4 million out of 209.5 million children between the ages of five and 14 in India are reported to be in schools. Only 65 per cent of the children in India reach grade 5, and of these many cannot read and write. Therefore, in order to promote a unique socio-cultural identity for children at the national level and save them from all kinds of exploitation, including serfdom, it is necessary that the government make education compulsory for all children under 14 years of age.

The United Nations treaties are generally adopted by member-nations to evolve a universal standard. One such treaty is the U.N. Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC), which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1989 and has been ratified by 191 member-nations. India ratified it on December 11, 1992. This, a most comprehensive treaty on the right of the child, seeks to protect child labour from all sorts of economic exploitation. The ratification increased awareness among the people and also the government's obligations regarding a national policy on child labour. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has advised member-nations of the U.N. to lay down political, administrative and social strictures to establish children's rights as provided by it.

Although India has made considerable progress in terms of overall social development and implemented measures to safeguard the rights of working children, there is still a need to expand the machinery for enforcing the various laws on child labour. This exercise, if done, will go a long way in saving the future of millions of working children in India.

Dr. O.P. Maurya is Joint Director of Employment Exchanges in the Ministry of Labour, Government of India. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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