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"The political class doesn't have honesty, especially towards children"

Sep 03, 2012

The recent amendment to the Child Labour Act in India was long overdue. Kailash Satyarthi, founder of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan has been working tirelessly towards a child labour free India. He shares his thoughts with Anubha Shukla of OneWorld South Asia about the state of children in India and the challenges in implementing the law.

OneWorld South Asia: The Indian cabinet has approved the amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, which proposes a ban on all sorts of child labour. Can you share with us the history of the child labour laws in India and how effective have these been in promoting the welfare of children?

Kailash Satyarthi: Well, let me begin with the present law on child labour. Since 1950, after the constitution was established, there have been many provisions and fundamental principles for the protection of children. But despite all these, we did not have a law until 1986.

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The Indian law against child labour came into existence only in 1986 which means between those thirty-six years (1950-1986) we were deaf and dumb towards the children who were exploited, sold and bought like animals; children who were producing wealth at the cost of their childhood, freedom and education. This reflects a deep political and social apathy.

The 1986 law was inappropriate, weak and was more for the continuation of various forms of child labour. The core element of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, was that child labour was banned only in hazardous occupations, but in the rest of the cases child labour was allowed. In India, 2/3rd of the child labourers work in the agricultural sector. 

OWSA: How did you initiate work on child welfare in the absence of adequate laws?

KS: We started our fight against child labour in 1980 and were rescuing children from traffickers with help through bonded labour law and other small laws. Our voices were heard only after six years, but the 1986 law which came into existence was weak so we started opposing that law too. Even then, there were voices in the Parliament that wanted to have another law to regulate child labour but we wanted a total ban.

"Laws, if not implemented properly, are nothing but a piece of paper which you can keep in your library and be very happy that India has great laws."

In 2000, a new law came into existence which was the Juvenile Justice Act. This prohibited dangerous or exploitative work for children upto the age of 18, whereas the Child Labour Law prohibits dangerous work upto the age of 14,  so this was a contradiction. Another contradiction came up after the enactment of the Right to Education Act which guarantees education for all children upto the age of 14.  When children have to be in school up to the age of 14, how can they then go for work and be in school simultaneously?

The BBA challenged this in the Supreme Court and mounted an intense campaign. We maintained regular contact with parliamentarians to build a political environment for the amendment of a law so that child labour could be banned completely upto the age of 14 and hazardous child labour till 18.  It is now that the law fulfills international standards.

OWSA: How easy is it to implement this law and what are the challenges?

KS: This law has three major elements. First is, all forms of child labour upto the age of 14 are banned. Employment of children in hazardous occupations is banned upto 18 years. Thirdly, children can now go to school if they are banned from going to work.

But the challenges are big. First of all, this law will face the challenge of enforcement. India doesn’t have the political will. The political class doesn’t have honesty, especially towards children.

"The Government of India says since 1986, thirteen lakh sixty thousand one hundred and seventeen inspections were carried out; 50,000 were prosecuted and out of these only 4,700 employers were convicted."

The growing middle class in India is full of hypocrisy. It is the middle class which looks for cheap labour as domestic help. Since 2006, domestic child labour is illegal but it has been increasing due to demand from the middle class. Girls are brought from across the country for domestic work. The so-called well-off people pamper their children but do not respect the childhood of others. So, apart from political will, if there is no social will, things are not going to be easy for children.

Another challenge is the enforcement of law. The enforcement machinery in India is not geared up because it doesn’t have capacity; lacks knowledge; is not sensitised enough and is corrupt. We want enforcement officers to be held accountable. If you see a child working, you can go and file a complaint against the employer but the labour officers are not held accountable.

The Government of India says since 1986, thirteen lakh sixty thousand one hundred and seventeen inspections were carried out; 50,000 were prosecuted and out of these only 4,700 employers were convicted. This means 0.03 per cent convictions. It is really shameful if you are not punishing the offenders.

We need more budgetary allocation. After children are rescued we need rehabilitation and educational programmes for a big segment that belongs to the 14-18 age group. If a law has been made, then you also need increased budgetary allocation for proper implementation which again is a big challenge.

OWSA: What impact will it have on labour laws, especially on the unorganised sector since 80 per cent child labourers in India are employed in the unorganised sector?

"In South Asia, we have 80 million jobless adults and about 80 million children in jobs.Parents are not preferred because they are expensive labour whereas kids come cheap. Children are vulnerable and won’t knock at the doors of a court, so they are preferred."

KS: It can affect the minimum wage act in labour laws. But laws, if not implemented properly, are nothing but a piece of paper which you can keep in your library and be very happy that India has great laws. Law should be used as a weapon but we lack those strong hands that can effectively use this weapon.

OWSA: There are many children who work with their parents and supplement the income in poor families. How will the law tackle that?

KS: In India, we have 50-60 million children in full-time jobs but an equal number of adults are jobless. Globally, 200 million adults are jobless and 210 million children are in fulltime jobs. In South Asia, we have 80 million jobless adults and about 80 million children in jobs. This vicious circle needs to be understood. Children are working at the cost of adults’ jobs. Parents are not preferred because they are expensive labour whereas kids come cheap. Children are vulnerable and won’t knock at the doors of a court, so they are preferred. The idea that children are bread-earners is a farce.

There are two international laws regarding child labour- ILO Convention 138, also called Minimum Age Convention, 1973; and ILO convention 182, also known as Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999. India is one of those countries like Sudan, who have not ratified these laws. It is shameful.

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