ProChild Coalition, a network of citizens and non-governmental organisations working for the protection of children in the country, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, criticising the Child Labour Law recently passed by the Lok Sabha. Activists said the new law legitimises child labour and reinforces caste-based occupations.

The Bill brings in a number of changes to the law from 1986. While it continues to prohibit children below 14 years to be employed in any "profession", it allows them to take part in "home-based work", such as helping their families in forests and fields. The amendment also defines children between the ages of 14 and 18 as "adolescents" and permits them to be employed in any profession besides the "hazardous occupations and processes" listed in the 1986 law.

The full text of the letter is below.

After 30 years the government has introduced a new child labour law which claims that it bans all forms of child labour till the age of 14. Sadly, the country is buying into an illusion. The truth is that the amendment to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Bill 2016, passed by the Parliament continues to allow children to be employed in family-based enterprises, and secondly, theemployment of children in most hazardous occupations like tanning, bangle-making, zari work, carpets, domestic work, e-waste and numerous others that till recently were recognised as hazardous for children will now be permitted. ProChild Coalition, a network of academics, organisations and individuals strongly opposes the Bill in its present form. Through this brief note we would like to raise some important concerns that arise in the wake of this. 

Legitimises Child labour

The government claims that it has banned all forms of child labour up to the age of 14 years however, with the new Bill it has de-incentivized education by legalizing home-based work. ‘Family’ is defined in the proposed bill as child’s mother, father, brother, sister and father’s sister and brother and mother’s sister and brother. It uses the word ‘help’ to describe the child’s involvement in the family enterprise (after school hours and during vacations). The problem lies in the inclusion of this proviso in the law, especially since we are well aware that the notion of family is very wide and ambiguous in our country. This is exactly the kind of legal loophole that has led to the continuation of child labour till now. Past experience of implementation of the law that had a similar proviso (Section 3 of the CLPRA, 1986) has amply shown that this was the one way in which children were tied to home based work and exploited.

Reinforces Caste based occupations

Since most family based occupations in India are caste based, the exception in Section 3 in the law, which allows children to work in family occupations, will only keep the caste system intact-like, for a potter's son/daughter to be a potter, a weaver's child to be a weaver and so on. In a feudal, caste driven Indian society what do these provisions amount to? Without doubt, this will worst affect the dalit and the marginalised who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

Child labour over Child Protection?

Although all children are banned from working in hazardous occupations, the 16 occupations and 65 processes that were listed as hazardous in the 1986 law has now been replaced in 3 occupations and 29 processes that are in the Factories Act which covers only the organized sector.

This reduction in the number of occupations that fall into this category and no provisions in it for an increase in this list, means that children will be employed in domestic work, hotel and dhabas, brick kilns and several other such places that have now come to be recognized as extremely hazardous occupations and fall in the unorganized sector. Although the government’s data claims there is a significant decrease A coalition of NGOs, academic institutions, child rights organizations and individuals working for children in India in the number of child labour in the country, in reality the number of children already working in the unorganized are multiplying (for example Census 2011 shows that child labour in urban settings has actually increased- and that is where the unorganized sector is).Besides, every day newer ‘occupations’ are coming up which are hazardous and dangerous. But they will not find a place in the law.

No Rights for Poor Children

While the Parliament vigorously debated and unanimously passed the Indian Institutes of Technology(Amendment) 2016 to benefit the young wizards of India, the same Parliament thought it fit to further discriminate against poor children by passing this regressive Bill.

Indeed, this Bill must be seen and analysed in the context of the dilution of labour laws and standards in the country and the move towards greater informalisation of labour and the push towards manufacturing in the unorganised sector. As Mr. Shankar Aggarwal, Secretary Ministry of Labour andEmployment is quoted saying “All the amendments are being done keeping in mind three things—need of the times, workers’ protection and creating an environment for more job creation,” ….“Every year, the country needs to create an excess of 10 million jobs and for that manufacturing sector is key. The proposed labour reforms will help the pace of industrialization while keeping workers’ rights intact.” 

Clearly the main stress of the Ministry is to create jobs to meet the needs for manufacturing, not so much to protect children. In this backdrop, when production is pushed into the homes, who is to regulate the entry of children into the work force? This is nothing but keeping the un-scrutinised and the unregulated informalisation of labour alive, so that corporates can ‘make in India’ without having to deal with the labour unions and the labour laws.

It seems the government is in a state of intellectual and policy disarray. While on one hand it talks about Skill India, and Girls’ education, on the other hand by passing this law dilutes the efforts keep their children out of school, as the Parliamentary Standing Committee examining the bill had cautioned: " The ministry is itself providing loopholes by inserting this proviso since it would be very difficult to make out whether children are merely helping their parents or are working to supplement the family income. Further, allowing children to work after school is detrimental to their health as rest and recreation is important for their physical and cognitive development." 2 Child labour in India has become sonormalised that there is neither shock nor shame – it is a ‘necessary evil’.

It seems, government is happy to put the burden to make ‘Make in India’ a success only on children from poor, dalit, muslim and tribal families? Shouldn’t a country vying for the global high table aim higher for its children?