An old Hindi song set the tone for the evening: “Insaaf ki dagar pe, bachchon dikhaao chal ke.”

The tune from Nitin Bose’s Ganga Jumna (1961) urges children to walk the path of justice. The moderator hummed a few lines and then posed the question, “Before children can grow up to become the torch bearers of justice, we have to think about something else – are we doing justice to them?”

So began a discussion on the rights of child actors in the film industry at a South Mumbai hotel on Tuesday. The event was organised by the non-profit Child Rights and You with the United Nations Children’s Fund to mark World Day Against Child Labour, observed internationally on June 12 every year.

The panelists included filmmaker Amole Gupte and actress Divya Dutta. They highlighted the long working hours of child artists and their loss of innocence. “Even the audience do not understand how to accept them as children,” Dutta said. “They often lose their childhood. Children are too young to know if they really want it [acting]. I have seen children work all night. We have to give them all the basic needs.”

Actress Daisy Irani’s recent revelations that she was raped as a child during a film shoot added heft to the discussions. “Daisy Irani’s story really shook me,” Dutt said. “It is important to give them a safe place. Recreation and education is important.”

Concerned about the physical and psychological health of child artists, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2010-11 released its Guidelines to Regulate Child Participation in TV Serials, Reality Shows and Advertisements. These included instructions to limit working hours – not more than five hours a day and 27 consecutive days – supervise children on set and ensure their education is uninterrupted, among other things. But these rules are rarely followed, the panelists said.

“A lot of therapists and psychiatrists are often invited [by production houses] to assess reality television shows and give them certificates,” said clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany, who was on the panel. “But we saw what was happening. We told them that we could not give them certificates because of a few reasons and the matter just fizzled out. The guidelines went out of the window. They start shooting at 4am. The parents are also at fault as they force children to do this.”

In March, the Commission announced that it would revise its guidelines for television after singer Papon was accused of kissing a minor contestant of a reality show.

Gupte, a former chairperson of Children’s Film Society of India, urged filmmakers to add to the rules listed in the government’s guidelines. Gupte has written and directed children’s films, including Taare Zameen Par (2007), Stanley Ka Dabba (2011) and Sniff (2017).

“Once I knew I would pick up the baton of producer-writer, I changed the rules of filming children,” Gupte said. “When you are writing for children you should write about places [where] they are comfortable: school and homes.”

Gupte said he never auditions children for his films as that can be traumatic. Instead, he holds workshops and picks out children while conducting activities with them.

He also emphasised that the education of child actors must not be disrupted. “Why should you take a child out of school for anything? Why not work around the child?” he asked. “Out of the many children that I have worked with, not one child has missed even one day of school.”

Stanley Ka Dabba (2011).

Several panelists raised the need for regular inspections at film and television sets to ensure the government’s rules are being followed. The guidelines do not specifically mention such checks, though they say that regulatory mechanisms are required if self-regulation does not work. They further state that the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should periodically review the rights of children in TV shows.

Ashwin Kakatkar, Deputy Commissioner of Labour (Konkan division) in the Maharashtra government, reiterated that self-regulation was the best bet to ensure the rights of child artists are protected. “Self compliance is the best in this case,” Kakatkar said. “Implementation authority cannot monitor everything 24/7. Self compliance is the best compliance. Complaints are very less as parents bring in their children into acting. But there is a lot of monitoring.”

However, Dutta argued the increased scrutiny could help ensure that rules are followed. “For the parents it becomes a high to take their children further up,” Dutta said. “But we follow then rules only when it is slapped on us.”

Pravin Ghuge, Chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, said the responsibility to uphold child rights fell on adults. “Women and workers and fight for their rights,” Ghuge said. “But children cannot because they do not understand this. It falls upon us to follow the guidelines and fight for it.”