Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

Child Labour Amendment – Time for a nuanced debate

by Aparna Sivakumar, Sanchayan Bhattacharjee and Shoumeli Das

“Equality of opportunity is the starting point for a fair society. But it’s not enough… Unless there is no equality of outcomes, equality of opportunities are not truly meaningful.”

Development economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism succinctly articulates why the current debate over the child labour legislation amendment in India needs nuanced thought and analysis.
Earlier this week, the Union cabinet passed certain amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. While on one hand it reiterates that children below the age of 14 should not be employed, it makes an exception for family-run enterprises and the entertainment sector, where a child can be employed after school hours or during vacations. All hazardous jobs have been barred for children and the penalties have been made more stringent – from fines to imprisonment.

First reactions justified…

Of course the most natural reaction to this development is to condemn the move to allow children below 14 years to be employed in any capacity. Fears that such a provision is prone to misuse are justified. So are arguments which question when children will play and grow if they are made to work after school hours and during vacations. What happens to their right to learn?
By allowing them to work, are we forcing children to become what “they were destined to be” by virtue of being born in a certain family? How can a child’s rights to childhood be negotiable?
These are uncomfortable questions.

… but is there another side to this debate?

Chang goes on to say,

“Individuals are not born in a vacuum. The socio-economic environment they operate in put serious restrictions on what they can do. Or even what they WANT to do…

While it is silly to blame everything on the socio-economic environment, it is equally unacceptable to believe that people can achieve anything if they only ‘believe in themselves’ and try hard enough. Equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.”

For children in various parts of India, earning a living is part of their day-to-day reality. The wages they earn is what keeps families going. Putting an end to a family’s source of income may lead to a number of challenges that may even jeopardise a child’s education.
For starters, can we at least minimise the damage caused by its prevalence?

It's not all black-and-white

It’s not all black-and-white

Here are a few thoughts:

– Could this amendment be the first step in ensuring minimum wages for children who are otherwise exploited?
– The legislation should also specify the maximum number of work hours for children.
– Why not make sure children are provided with minimum conditions that make their work environment conducive? For example, making sure they are provided a meal or a snack at the workplace.
– Since legislations are prone to misuse, it is important that all aspects of child labour are thoroughly reviewed and unambiguously spelt out. For instance, the blanket exception given to the entertainment industry needs to be thought through, as there is a large disparity in the nature of work, the working hours involved, and the remuneration received.
– The amendment should ideally expand on and revise the 18 occupations and 65 processes that the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act (CLPR Act) 1986 prohibits employment of a child in.
– And more importantly, there is need to create sound frameworks of monitoring and deterrence, by penalising those found flouting rules.

By just stopping children from working and enrolling them into schools, we cannot necessarily ensure their development. You cannot isolate them from their socio-economic conditions. Unless, something is done to address ‘why children work’, child labour-free India will remain a utopian dream.

There is also need for dialogue between educators, educationists and labour activists to ensure that every child is able to fulfil their potential under the provisions of the Right to Education Act, in both letter and spirit, and live a happy life.

Perhaps, this amendment could be the start to the end of child labour in India.

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This entry was posted on 16/05/2015 by in Education, ORF Mumbai and tagged , , , , , .
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