By Shilpa Roy
OPINION | JUNE 14, 2020:
Children are innocent, curious and their life should be full of hope, joy, and security. The exploitation of children both physically and mentally is a crime against humanity. Realizing this, every year the World Day Against Child Labour is celebrated to foster the worldwide movement against child labour in any of its forms. But the first question that arises is who can be called a child? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as "a person who has not attained the age of 18 years."
However, the Indian laws have different age groups in different statutes to determine the age of children, but universally acknowledged limit to be regarded as a child is 18 years old.
One of the consequences of miscalculating a child's age is the exploitation of children in the form of child labour. India is home to the largest child population in the world.
The Constitution of India guarantees Fundamental Rights to all children in the country and empowers the state to make special provisions for children. The Directive Principles of State Policy specifically guide the state in securing children from abuse and ensuring that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop healthily in conditions of freedom and dignity. The Constitution of India in its Article 24 prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in factories and hazardous forms of employment.
According to a United Nations report, 218 million children worldwide between five and 17 years are being employed. Among them, 152 million children are victims of child labour, almost half of them, 73 million, are in hazardous work conditions. In India, the 2011 census revealed that 10.13 million children between five and 14 years are victims of child labour in India, and 53.69 lakh children between five and 14 years were working as agricultural labourers in India. One of the grim reality of child labour, as per the data by Child Rights You (CRY) is that 1.4 million child labourers in India between seven and 14 years of age are illiterate.
Despite the constitutional provision under Article 21-A which provides for free and compulsory education to all children between the age of six and 14 years, the ground reality remains that education is still a distant dream for some children. Again there is Article 39 (e) talking about the states' obligation to ensure 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 or strength. But I am afraid that these constitutional commitments are achieved in the truest sense or not, especially now when we are facing a global pandemic. This crisis can push millions of vulnerable children into child labour because people's lives and livelihood are hugely impacted due to the lockdown.
Children around the world are routinely engaged in paid and unpaid forms of work that are detrimental to their physical, mental, social and educational development. Africa ranks highest for child labour practices and the Asia Pacific region ranks second. In India, there are sufficient statutes prohibiting child labour but the conviction rate of perpetrators is very low.
Under the Factories Act, 1948 children below the age of 14 cannot be employed in a factory, the Mines Act, 1952 has similar provisions prohibiting employment of children below 14 years in a mine. On September 2019, the Government after discussion with the stakeholders amended the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 which completely prohibits the employment of children below 14 years, except for those employed in family enterprises.
The amendment also permits the employment of adolescents between the age group of 14-18 years except in hazardous occupations. The number of hazardous occupations have been decreased from 83 to only three. These changes depict how India lacks a national commitment to abolish child labour entirely. Under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, there is a statutory obligation for every child to complete elementary education but if a child is employed in family enterprises, he is expected to earn as well as study, which appears contradictory to the vision of our policymakers.
India undoubtedly has implemented a huge range of laws and programmes to combat child labour. The observation by the Gurupadswamy Committee formed by the Central Government in the year 1979 was that child labour is inextricably linked to poverty. Taking into account the findings and recommendations of the Gurupadswamy Committee, the Union Government enacted the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. India ratified the International Labour Organization's (ILO), Convention No. 138 and 182 to symbolize its commitment and initiatives for the eradication of child labour and attainment of Sustainable Development Goals related to the curbing of child labour. However, despite these laws and international commitments, child labour is still prevalent.
It has been proven, since time immemorial that education is key to bringing in changes in the individual as well as in the collective level. Sending girls to school is one of the best investments a country can make for its development, yet they are the ones who are forced to drop out of school and work. During the global lockdown, the real picture of child labour in India was revealed when the migrant workers returned home.
And I am afraid that after the lockdown ends, they will be again sent by their parents to work in different fields. I need not mention here how hard our economy has been hit due to the coronavirus pandemic and this just elevates the instances of child labour. If awareness about the cons of child labour is spread across the globe and perpetrators are booked with severe punishment, then child labour can be wiped off from the society. Small hands should pick up a pen rather than working in industries and fields. As Nelson Mandela puts it; "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children"
(The author of this article is a lawyer and columnist based in Guwahati, Assam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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