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Hands that Should Play, Not Toil: Rethinking Child Labor in India


Child Labour is one of the most well-known problems in India, but it remains one of the least acted upon by the government. Children in our country are one of the most vulnerable members of a family and owing to their cognitive immaturity, they inherently establish a fiduciary relationship with the adults around them. One of the major causes for this constant rise in child labour is the rise in poverty among Indians. As India still follows the outdated model of the poverty line i.e., the Tendulkar poverty line index even in 2022, the official data might not hint at the right figures, but it is apparent that the poverty rates are rising if compared to the unemployment and hunger indexes which stands at 5.27% in 2018-19 and 14.6 % in 2018-2020 respectively. The situation has been further exacerbated with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. In concordance with the last available Census data from 2011, it was disclosed that India harbored 10.1 million child laborers. Subsequently, the National Crime Bureau Report of 2022 revealed that in 2021, around 982 cases were officially documented under the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. This indicates a significant upsurge from the 476 cases recorded under the Act in the preceding year, 2020. Consequently, this underscores the substantial impact of the pandemic on the prevailing situation, as evidenced by the doubling of cases within a one-year timeframe.  In these circumstances, the older members of the family often find themselves compelled to resort to forcing their immature children into child labor, unaware of alternative means to help the family grow.


Perils in Soft-Hand Industries

In India, persistent inflation of essential commodities has resulted in a prevalent practice in many rural areas, where families traditionally engage their children in contributing to the household income, irrespective of the family's socio-economic status and the preferences of the children. There are many industries in India which require soft hands to do the work like the bangle industry and the carpet industry. So, this makes children most vulnerable of being kidnapped and trafficked to work in these industries. In 2020, the Anti Human Trafficking Units in Jaipur successfully rescued 900 children, of whom 25 were found subjected to bonded labour in bangle manufacturing factories. These children endured physical violence, with a majority trafficked from Bihar to Rajasthan, highlighting the critical need for concerted efforts to address and prevent such instances of child exploitation. Some might argue that helping earn a living for the family is good but it makes children lose out on the education and the pleasures of their childhood and forces them to ultimately spend their future looking for jobs and living in poverty as held by the Apex court in the landmark judgement of M.C. Mehta Vs. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors. They keep rotating in the vicious circle of disease, hunger, and this lineage of poverty keeps continuing.


Legal Measures Against Child Exploitation

According to the International Labour Organization child labour can be defined as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. The Right to Education (Eighty-sixth amendment) inserted Article 21-A which provides that the state must provide every child in the age group of six to fourteen years with compulsory education, but the children engaging in bonded labour are deprived of such Fundamental Rights enshrined in the constitution. There any many provisions listed in the Indian Constitutional framework for protection of children from child labour and punishment for the employer who employees them. Article 24 of the Indian constitution prohibits employment of any child below 14 years of age in any factory or mine or a factory indulged in producing hazardous substances. A third person can also go and report about child labour to the police station or the magistrate of the area. Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 was amended in 2016 to make child labour a cognisable office which meant that the police officer would not require prior warrant from the magistrate to arrest the accused person. Constitutional amendment in 1976 also added Article 39(f) which stated that it is the duty of the state to make sure that “childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment”. There are several other legislation in India, such as: (a) The Section 67 of The Factories Act of 1948, which prohibits employment of children below 14 years of age in factories and also makes a categorization based on the time period in the factory for adolescents(15 to 18 years). (b) The Section 45 of Mines Act of 1952, which prevents the employment of children and adolescents in mines. All in all this is done to prevent children and adolescents to get exposed to hazardous material and gasses at an early stages of their life. To counter the traditional system of command over the children by the parents, the Indian government in 1976 introduced Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act to punish the parents who force their child to work as a bonded labourer.



International Commitment to Child Rights

Child labour is a major issue not only in India but has also gained global attention way back in time. International institutions, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), which has 187 member nations, recognized the critical importance of fighting against child labour in 1973. The "ILO Minimum Age Convention" of 1973 emphasizes the necessity for member states to designate a minimum age for entry into employment and work, while also promoting the development of complete national programs to eliminate child labour. This honour highlights the global commitment to protecting children's rights and well-being. According to UNICEF, child labour stands at 160 Million globally which means 1 out of every 10 children are indulged into child labour. To counter the ever-rising rates of child labour in the world, these international organizations have also come up with such conventions which the member states are bound to follow. The International Labour Organization introduced 2 important conventions which are also signed by India namely Minimum Age Convention in 1973 and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 1999. According to the Minimum Age Convention, every signatory country was required to set a minimum age to enter into work. Although the recommended age was 15, the Indian government decided to set it as 14. Recommendation No. 146 also suggested that every country enact legislation to assist low-income families and provide them with enough assistance so that they do not push their children to work. This might include free education for children, free vocational training, etc. To step up the fight against child exploitation, ILO introduced the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. This convention was introduced to curb the trade of minors for illegal activities. United Nations also signed a treaty named Conventions of Rights of a Child which comprised 54 articles mentioning all the rights of children and United Nations will make sure that every country abides by this convention and protects the rights of children. The poverty mentioned previously was in mainly the result of bad governance by the Indian government. There are many other factors that contribute to the rise in child labour mainly in hazardous industries, it is about the children who have been impacted by migration because of armed conflict or weakening economic conditions in their home country. The recent example is of the crisis in Ukraine which has resulted in the exodus of two million children and the internal displacement of three million people. In India’s neighbouring country, Sri Lanka the children are the most affected of all the people present in the country. They are starving for food and health care services. This situation will ultimately force the families to leave their home country and flee to some other country in search of a better life on a really short note. Because of this, they won’t be able to get proper assistance from the government and have to ultimately sacrifice their child’s life for the growth of their family. To protect all the people fleeing from these badly affected country UNHCR introduced Global Compact on Refugees to oversee the support provided to the refugees by host countries and also collaborate with host countries for better treatment.


Securing Childhood: Legal Reforms and Cooperation

In discharging the duty of protecting children's rights, the community must advocate for a thorough review of national laws, particularly the Child Labour Act (Amendment 2016) which prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14. But, there is an exception to it under section 5 of the amendment which allows children even under 14 to assist in family enterprises which is a critical shortfall to the main intention of the act. This legal provision, while aligns with the notion of promoting family entrepreneurship, lacks the necessary restrictions on hazardous work, potentially subjecting children to hazardous tasks within family businesses under the guise of familial assistance. Addressing this issue is pivotal for ensuring the comprehensive well-being of children. Awareness plays the most important role in abolishing any social issue likewise and awareness against child labour must be created by gathering various NGO groups to identify hazardous work and conducting various camps, particularly in rural India, to convince them not to employ children in such fields. The government shall impose a licensing requirement that will compel businesses to provide a list of employees along with their ages, which the government will verify before giving the license to continue or begin operations for such enterprises. Furthermore, countries should work together on a global scale to exchange best practices and synchronize strategies to jointly prevent any more children from being pushed into work. This united front would aim to eliminate child labour and protect the well-being of children worldwide by promoting education among them.

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