Every day, as dawn breaks over the small village of Shivnagar in the furthest corner of Bihar’s Munger district, Nutan has to get up from bed, and with reddened, puffy eyes still half-closed with sleep, has to go along with her parents to the brick kiln near their village. Nutan can’t think of going to school even in her remotest dreams, as no one from her family has ever been to school. Hailing from the extremely poor Mahato community, this 12-year-old girl has to work at the brick kiln while most of her friends go to school every day. As evening falls and the family returns home, Nutan has to help her mother out with the chores until she aches and her eyes are swollen with sleep.
Nutan’s story, however, takes a positive turn as Disha Vihar, a grassroots level organisation supported by Child Rights and You (CRY) stands with her, and after long rounds of discussion and counselling with her parents, finally manages to convince them to send her to school.
But some questions arise even before we start celebrating Nutan’s success. What about the multitudes of other Nutans all around, who are still denied their rights, and still have to spend their childhood working in brick kilns, open hearth coal pits, or in the dingy bidi rolling workshops? What about those 10 million children in the country who are yet to take their steps to schools?
Before we examine the issue more closely, let us have a quick look at some figures that give us the right perspective. Census 2011 data shows that among 250 million children in the age group of 5-14 years, more than 10 million are engaged in some sort of work. Detailed age-group-wise data suggests 2.5 million working children belong to the age group of 5-9 years, while around 7.6 million come from the age group of 10-14 years. The same Census data also tells us that around 4.3 million children in India are engaged in labour throughout the whole year, while 1.9 million work for three months a year, and 3.8 million work for three to six months a year.
If we look at the state-wise distribution of the children’s workforce, Uttar Pradesh tops the list with a whopping 2.1 million. Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh closely follow, together to contribute to the total population of working children by 55%. The total number of Indian children working in the urban setup amounts to 2 million, of which 1.1 million come from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat.
More than three decades of on-ground experience in working with underprivileged children has taught us that the glaring gaps in addressing the issue lie both in the policy level and at the mindset of the people at large. The Right to Education Act (RTE) does not include children in the age group of 14-18 years, and similar gaps are there in the existing Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (CLPRA), which does not bring in children aged 14-18 years within its purview. Several children’s rights organisations have been advocating for the modification of child labour laws as per the declarations of the United Nations Convention on Child Rights and ILO Conventions. But, though the National Policy for Children 2012 has defined a child to be any person below 18 years, these laws are yet to be brought into parity.
Apart from age-related issues in defining childhood, weak provisions of punishment and fines for the offending employers in the existing Child Labour Act also have somewhat diluted the effectiveness of the law. The policy-makers, though expected to show positive intent in the best interests of the child, have not yet taken adequate proactive measures to address issues related to rehabilitation of working children in a comprehensive and full-proof manner.
In the same breath, it should be mentioned that a more coordinated approach to inter-departmental and multi-functional processes and operations in rescuing children from child labour and mainstreaming them in the society could have addressed the issues in more fruitful ways. Even though the Intensive Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) ensures an overall coordination among different concerning bodies, the district-level Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) are not fully capacitated to understand their responsibility and deliverables; nor have the newly proposed Child Protection Committees (CPCs) at all levels started working in full swing.
Keeping these grey areas in mind, there has to be strong opinion building in favour of harmonising the age of children across various social and labour legislations. We do believe that legislation should not divide children into child and adolescent (as the recent amendment to CLPRA proposes), as both are equally vulnerable. The law should not allow any child below 18 years of age to be engaged in any kind of employment. At the same time, the Right to Education Act 2009 (RTE) should be extended to all children up to 18 years of age.
Also, engaging in home-based work denies children of their right to education and recreation. The law should not legitimise home-based work. Rehabilitation of working children is also non-negotiable, and should be integral in the law. Institutionalised rehabilitation process at the district, state and inter-state level will certainly help mainstream children coming from working backgrounds.
This is also a very common experience that large numbers of children are trafficked from rural areas for work. Efforts should be made to evolve village and block level mechanisms for the protection of children, develop explicit linkage of child labour legislation with juvenile justice, trafficking and integrated child protection scheme. To address this, clarity of role and convergence is needed among stakeholders for the rescue of working children. This can be achieved by ensuring better coordination among ministries like Women and Child Development, Labour, Rural Development and Human Resource Development. And being the primary duty bearer, can the government abdicate its responsibility regarding this?
But restructuring the legal parameters and streamlining the standard operational procedures are not enough in restoring children’s rights. Strengthening livelihood opportunities and social security of the affected families are perhaps equally important, if not more, so that parents are not compelled to send their children to work for the mere reason of subsistence.
And last but not the least, we must remember that child protection is not, as it should not be, only an administrative agenda. It is, by all means, everyone’s responsibility. Child labour can never be eliminated until we make it a social priority. It’s always easier to call for widespread awareness campaigns, but the need of the hour is to start the battle against our age-old practice to employ children.
Atindranath Das is Regional Director, East, for Child Rights and You (CRY).