SEATTLE — When the number of hhildren engaged in child labor in India peaked at 12.6 million in 2001, decisive actions towards alleviating the problem gained momentum. The concerted efforts of Save the Children International, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, National Child Labor Projects (NCLP) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have led to a 65 percent decline in child labor and a focus on formalizing child labor law in India.
India’s original Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was passed in 1986, and in 2012, an attempt was made to make the bill more comprehensive. Unfortunately, the presence of various loopholes, including an amendment passed in 2015, has attracted criticism to the attempt.
Nevertheless, India’s new child labor law remains one of the most decisive attempts by the government to reduce child labor. Passed by the Rajya Sabha in late July, it was formulated in accordance with ILO child labor conventions 182 and 138 and backed by India’s largest political party, the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) Party.
The law staunchly forbids the employment of children below the age of 14 and heralds the dawn of a new outlook on India’s National Child Labor Policy. Its implementation will help fight the vicious cycle of illiteracy that has plagued many communities, and pave the way for economic self-sufficiency and benefit future generations.
Many aspects of the law, however, are still viewed through a lens of skepticism. One criticism springs from the fact that the law does not apply to child labor done for family enterprises, outside school hours or during holidays. The issue of child labor in family enterprises has long been embedded in Indian culture and rests on strong feelings of family obligation and societal pressure.
Child labor in family enterprises can have dire consequences for schools, ranging from poor academic performance to lower attendance rates. Children may leave school entirely, unable to cope with the augmented demands of work and education.
The new law will probably not eliminate the reality of ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ child labor, exploitation, slavery and child trafficking in India.
It also fails to take informal child labor agreements into consideration. Low-wage industries such as tea harvesting and mining in Panipath, Haryana, for example, have been known to recruit children for work after school. The failure to account for child labor law in India caused UNICEF and Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi to deem it inadequate.
Critics of the law also point out the fact that children in India contribute substantially to their families’ aggregate monthly incomes. Some people fear that the new law may lead to insurmountable financial pressures on families, thus exacerbating poverty.
Fortunately, implementation of the new child labor law in India will result in tightened legislation and establish stringent penalties for offenders. It will also severely diminish the capacities of industries such as cigarette rolling and leather tanning to make children work in dangerous or unfavorable conditions.
The progress of the new child labor law in India highlights how structural reforms can take many years and amendments to achieve. Child labor is an issue in which progressive changes are perpetually occurring. Expanding India’s child labor law’s provisions into all sectors of Indian society will take time.
– Shivani Ekkanath