An amendment to the Child Labour Prohibition Act proposed by the Modi government is about to undo the hard-won progress in the area of child labour and condemn millions of children to exploitative employment. The amendment will allow children below the age of 14 to work in “family enterprises”. This will encourage the outsourcing and piece-rate exploitative manufacture of a range of products, involving both hazardous and non-hazardous processes. The new norms will also apply to the entertainment industry and sports.

The amendment flies in the face of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which guarantees education to every child. After the RTE came in, child labour dropped from 12.6 million in 2001 to 4.3 million in 2014. The amendment will undo much of that progress. It will also be a serious setback to all the work done by activists such as Swami Agnivesh and Kailash Satyarthi to rescue children from bonded labour and exploitation.

Mirzapur-based Shamshad Khan, president of the Centre for Rural Education and Development Action, calls the move “retrogressive”. “All our campaigns to end bonded child labour, starting from the ’80s, will go up in smoke,” said Khan. “Schools will be emptied out and poor children in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh will be back to working in sheds and makeshift factories that will all go by the nomenclature of family enterprises. The worst-hit will be the children of Dalits, Muslims, tribal families and those belonging to marginalised communities.”

The amendment can also be used to deny education to the girl child, who will be sucked into all manner of housework. According to government statistics, male literacy levels in 2014 stood at about 82% while female literacy levels were as low as 64%. The school drop-out rate for girl children is almost double the rate for boys.

'Unconstitutional changes'

Minister of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya announced in early April that the government planned to introduce amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition Act in the current session of Parliament. His ministry, while seeking the amendments, said the Act will not apply to children helping families in home-based work, and especially families working in agriculture and animal-rearing. The objective of these amendments, according to ministry officials, is to help children nurture a spirit of entrepreneurship. They will particularly help children of families currently living at subsistence levels, the ministry claims.

Child rights activists say the move will benefit factory owners in the cow belt. Their profits will escalate fourfold as children could be made to work longer hours and paid less than adults.

Social jurist and Supreme Court advocate Ashok Aggarwal describes the proposed amendments as unconstitutional. “They are going against the recommendations of the parliamentary subcommittee that barred children from helping parents even in domestic chores,” Aggarwal said.

Enakshi Ganguly Thukral of HAQ Centre for Child Rights believes this is an attempt by the Modi government to ensure a sizeable chunk of the population remains in the informal sector, deprived of minimum wages and social security. “The government is not in a position to provide jobs for millions of young people,” said Thukral. “Such a retrograde step will help ensure millions of kids remain illiterate and therefore unemployable.”

Bad old days again

Major cutbacks in the 2015 budget in the areas of health, women and children, and education will further compound this problem. Thukral says labour officials are already guilty of under-reporting child labour. “But once child labour is permitted under one guise or the other, then even a minimum [level] of accountability will cease to exist,” she said.

Labour officials at the district level are empowered to file cases against employers hiring children but few employers are ever convicted. Statistics from the Ministry of Labour for 2004-2014 show that there have been 1,168 convictions for children employed in hazardous industries with about Rs 83 lakh collected in fines. This money has been designated for the rehabilitation and welfare of child labour. However, in this period, only Rs 5 lakh was disbursed from this fund.

Khan recalls the period before the RTE Act, when touts and dalals openly knocked on the doors of rich seths to sell trafficked children. “In the ’80s, kids were being paid a daily wage of as little as Rs 4 per day,” he said. “We kept up pressure on the government, insisting that all out-of-school kids be categorised as child labour. This open trafficking of kids declined sharply with the RTE Act. If the BJP succeeds in introducing such a dangerous amendment, we will be back to those old days.”

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been amended to clarify why children could continue to be employed in hazardous occupations despite a section of the Act prohibiting such activity.