Banning child labour is a prerequisite for eradication of poverty I appreciate the efforts of the labour ministry regarding the passage of pending legislation to ban child labour for children under the age of 14. While a Parliamentary Standing Committee consisting of cross-party law makers had already cleared the bill, to my utter surprise the bill has been referred back to the labour ministry, citing the hushed reason that child labour cannot be completely banned due to poverty.
Even today, ordinary citizens, academia and many politicians are victims of a misbelief that child labour is a necessary evil in a country like India. Having worked in this area for the last 35 years, i can emphatically say that nothing could be further from the truth. I take it as my responsibility to debunk a few myths surrounding poverty and child labour.
There exists a vicious circle between poverty, illiteracy and child labour. Child labour and poverty have a chicken-and-egg relationship. A child born in a poor family begins life in a disadvantaged position, most often missing school. Children excluded from education grow up to be illiterate and economically vulnerable. These children are at high risk of exploitation and are more likely to be pulled into child labour at the cost of their health, education and well-being.
Another key fact that people ignore is that parents of most child labourers are essentially jobless or underemployed. There are almost 168 million child labourers worldwide and 200 million unemployed adults, with parallels existing in most developing countries.
Most of the jobs done by child labourers are essentially regular jobs that have been forced on kids. There are jobs, there are unemployed adults, but still millions of children are pushed into labour. Why? Simply because, children are the cheapest form of labour available. They are not aware of their rights, are easily misled and are too young to speak against their conditions, but our laws permit employers to exploit these hapless souls.
The truth remains that a working child will not extricate his or her family out of poverty, in fact it will keep the family stuck in the rut for generations.
This slippery slope continues unabated till one such child is imparted education. It is a well-researched, but often ignored fact that child labour perpetuates poverty. A report by International Labour Organisation verifies that every $1 spent on the eradication of child labour would return $7 over the next two decades.
Also, another report says that a single year of primary school education increases the wages people earn later in life by 5 to 15% for boys and even more for girls. Child labour is hence the biggest obstacle to development and must be tackled in tandem with poverty alleviation schemes.
India’s ranking among the fastest growing nations in the world will stand shaken if its children are continually marginalised. A recently completed study from 50 countries established that every extra year of schooling provided to the whole population can increase average annual GDP growth by 0.37%. Where the education is of good quality, the improvement of cognitive skills increases the impact to 1%.
Let me also debunk a myth regarding child labour law. We are demanding a complete ban on child labour up to the age of 14. It nowhere means that children cannot help their families in their free time.
They definitely can, but not at the cost of their education, health and leisure time. Also, a child cannot be involved in a commercial activity even at home. The proposed child labour law provides for this. This point is important because several law-breaking employers fake familial connections with the child labourer to escape punishment.
The existing Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act passed in 1986, bans child labour only in so-called hazardous occupations for children under the age of 14. In other words, this law bans only 20% of all child labour in India and is silent on the rest 80%.
Our Constitution and the Right to Education law guarantees free and compulsory education to all children between 6 and 14, as their right. As far as children between 15 to 18 are concerned, the Juvenile Justice Act safeguards this age group from all kinds of abuse and exploitation. However, the current child labour law is mute about treatment of these young adults.
The new amendment must harmonise with the Right to Education law and the Juvenile Justice Act, thus paving the way for protection of our children and their future.
We are also demanding a complete ban on the worst forms of child labour such as hazardous work, bonded labour, child prostitution, illicit militia and forced beggary for children in the age of 15 to 18 years. This age group is the most vulnerable to abusive situations and violence. The government must take effective measures to give all children an education that enhances their employability, entrepreneurship and ethics.
We as a country must invest in imparting skill-based education to our youth. This will go a long way in ensuring that the vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to harness the demographic dividend of India is fully realised.
The writer is a child rights activist. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. via TOI blog.