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BRP Bhaskar: Scourge of child labour
January 27, 2015
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Just as the long-drawn nationwide campaign against child labour showed signs of success, a new problem has surfaced: organised trafficking of children from the backward states to distant cities.

While conducting a cordon-and-search operation in the southern city of Hyderabad last week, as part of the effort to make sure that nothing untoward happens during the three-day visit of US President Barack Obama, who was in New Delhi as guest at the Republic Day parade, police stumbled upon a colony of about 250 child workers from northern states.

The children, aged 6 to 13 years, were kept in rooms in a place under the control of rowdy elements, the police said. They included 10 girls. They had been brought from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to work in hazardous industries in which child labour is prohibited.

Also last week, labour officials in Tamil Nadu found three children from Uttar Pradesh working in a fishing village near Colachel in Kanyakumari district. They were living with local families, and were involved in fishing and in cotton cotton candy making.

A newspaper quoted a labour inspector as saying several fishermen’s families in the area have given up their traditional occupations after the December 2004 tsunami. Young people from other states have taken their place. Tamil Nadu appeals to people from West Bengal and Odisha and refugees from Bangladesh, whose staple diet is rice and fish, because of the similarity in food habits, he added.

Over the years, the Central and state governments have undertaken several schemes to eliminate child labour and draw the children into the school system. The most important initiative in this regard was the National Child Labour Project launched in 1988. Its focus was on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations and processes. Over a million students are said to have been weaned away from the labour market under the scheme and put in about 6,000 schools set up especially for them.

The Indian government and UNICEF have been working together on promotion of children’s right to education, viewing access to and retention in schools as a major strategy to eliminate child labour. Since children belonging to the marginalised sections of the society are the ones most affected, they have accorded high priority to capacity building of such communities and enlisting the services of non-government organisations and community-based organisations at village level in the child labour intervention programme.

The 2011 census report testifies to the success of the programme. It showed that the number of child labourers had fallen dramatically to 4.35 million from the 2001 figure of 12.67 million.

In 2001, there were five states with more than a million child labourers. In 2011, there was none. Uttar Pradesh brought down the number from 1.93 million to 896,000, Andhra Pradesh from 1.36 million to 405,000, Rajasthan from 1.26 million to 252,000, Bihar from 1.12 million to 452,000 and Madhya Pradesh from 1.07 million to 286,000.

Child labour is most prevalent among Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and other backward classes. Its most horrendous form is  bonded child labour, which is widespread in the informal sector.  It is a form of slavery since it obliges children to work in repayment of loans taken by the parents.

The Centre was slow in responding to calls to ban child labour because of a long-standing tradition ot of allowing children to work in agriculture and cottage industries. Under continuous prodding by civil society organisations, it enacted a law in 1986 to regulate child labour. The law did not ban on child labour. It only prohibited employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous occupations notified by the government.

After the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 the government came under further pressure to move forward. Accordingly, it enacted in 2005 a new law providing for the appointment of commissions at national and state levels to ensure that laws, policies and administrative mechanisms are in consonance with the Constitution and the UN Convention. It brought all those who are under 18 years within the definition of children.

Three years ago the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government brought forward a bill to amend the Child Labour Act to impose a total ban on employment of children. It did not push the measure through Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more employer-friendly than his predecessor, has not indicated what his government plans to do in the matter.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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