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A harsh verdict on India's poorest, most vulnerable children


Mumbai street scene. Peter Rivera under a Creative Commons Licence

In a step backward, the country is allowing its young to be employed in ‘family businesses’, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

In a hugely regressive step that has child rights' activists, and indeed most concerned, thinking people outraged and fuming, Indian Parliament has 'allowed children up to the age of 14 to be employed in ‘family enterprises'. In a shocking move, the Indian government, with unbelievable shamelessness, announced that a new category of ‘adolescents', our teenagers, (the 14-18 age group) is being created. These children can now legally be employed in ‘non hazardous’ occupations. Who defines 'non hazardous'? Who decides which jobs children should do? None of these questions have been analysed or addressed.

The excuse is appalling, though predictably so. India, like Bangladesh, Pakistan and other Asian, African and south American countries, has its socio-economic realities. And so we have taken a step backward and issued a few new amendments to tweak the law in such a way that childrens' rights to education and childhood, can be pulled out from under their feet. In order for our galloping economy to continue racing on, we will allow vested interests, that exploiting class of child employers with no scruples whatsoever, to continue to make use of our children in order to generate profits.

Child rights activists have fought to outlaw child labour for decades. The little ground they have gained after years of legal battles will once again slip away. The business interests have won by ensuring that kids are in some form or other available for employment, once more. This has always been the case. But now it’s perfectly legal to exploit and employ teenagers.

In 2009, after a huge struggle, the passage of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, was passed. This created a statutory obligation to ensure that every child completes elementary education. There was elation in education and child rights circles. Finally a break for our poorest and working children. Now, the government's public relations people are trying to push the hype that the main amendment, banning children up to the age of 14 in any occupation, is an enormous leap forward. They say the earlier ban, limited employment of children to some occupations only. We are expected to be grateful for the dubious crumbs thrown at the children.

The only concession to the educational rights of the working children is that they are permitted to work in family projects, only outside school hours and during vacations. It’s meant to be a sop. On the ground, at the grassroots, it’s a different reality for the children. Child rights groups know from bitter experience that this will be almost impossible to monitor. Nor is it effectively possible, in reality, to implement limited hours and vacation time work. The number of dropouts will surge.

Children are kept home from school when they have the possibility of bringing in some income, no matter how meagre. Little girls mostly, but also little boys are often forced to stay away from school to look after younger siblings, fetch water, or help with housework. The poorer the family, the worse the chances are for kids. Children from our poorest northern states are being trafficked to work in the south where wages are higher.

The odds against hard won child rights battles are tremendous. To have them overturned is completely unacceptable. We boast about how progressive our country is, but this legislation makes us hark back to a bleak Dickensian era. How any government can do this, in this day and age is difficult to comprehend. How they are being allowed to get away with it is even harder to fathom.

The battle to overturn this harsh verdict on India's poorest, most vulnerable children will commence once again. Our hearts are with the children and their human rights defenders.

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