Child Labour: Status and Policy in India

Vaishali Singh 

Abstract 

Child labour in India persists primarily due to poverty, unemployment, and socio-economic conditions forcing children to contribute to family income. Urban migration exacerbates this issue, leading to children taking up menial work. Due to insufficient government reporting, reliance is placed on various NGOs’ reports. Government efforts, such as the National Child Labour Project (NCLP), have faltered due to funding deficiencies, leading to the closure of schools meant for rehabilitated child labourers. A significant issue remains the employment of children above 14 years in hazardous work, affecting their schooling and future job prospects. The author suggests incorporating trade learning and skill development to better engage children above 14 years in schooling and improve their job opportunities.

Introduction

“I am the child. All the world waits for my coming…You determine, largely, whether I shall succeed or fail…Train me, I beg you, that I may be a blessing to the world.” – Manie Gene Cole.

This quote, referenced by Justice Hansari in the M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu case, highlights the national issue of child labour linked to poverty. Despite legislative efforts, child labour remains a pressing problem in India, where many children are forced into work due to economic necessity. This significantly impairs their learning abilities and future wage potential. Every year on June 12th, the World Day Against Child Labour, initiated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2002, emphasizes the global commitment to eradicate child labour.

Global Commitments: International Agreements on Child Labour

Child labour violates fundamental human rights and impacts children’s education, health, and overall well-being. International conventions, Indian laws, and landmark judgments are crucial in addressing this issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes education as a fundamental right, crucial for preventing exploitative labour. Article 5 prohibits cruel treatment, relevant to harsh conditions in child labour. Article 1 asserts equality and dignity for all, including children. Together, they underline the need for comprehensive measures to protect children from exploitation.

Adopted by the ILO in 1973, Convention No. 138 sets the minimum age for employment at 15, aligning with compulsory education. It mandates 18 years as the minimum age for hazardous work, protecting children from economic exploitation and ensuring their health and development. Recommendation No. 146 highlights the need for policies aimed at poverty alleviation and promoting decent jobs for adults, reducing the need for child labour. Light work for children below the general minimum age is allowed, provided it does not interfere with their schooling or development. India’s ratification of this convention in 2017 signifies its commitment to these standards.

ILO Convention No. 182, adopted in 1999, mandates the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, such as slavery, prostitution, illicit activities, and hazardous work. Article 7(2) emphasizes education in eliminating child labour, requiring strategies to prevent engagement in the worst forms, assist in removal and rehabilitation, and ensure access to free basic education and vocational training. Despite these efforts, child labour remains prevalent. Over one-third of child labourers are out of school, with boys more affected than girls, indicating the need for targeted interventions.

Protective Laws Against Child Labour: A Legislative Overview

The Indian Constitution explicitly protects children from hazardous employment under Article 24 and ensures that socio-economic conditions do not force children into work that affects their development under Article 39. These protections are further bolstered by statutory rights and social schemes that promote children’s participation in school education through mid-day meals and other initiatives.

However, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, under Section 3, allows children to help their family or family enterprises after school hours or during vacations. This provision has been criticized for being vague about what constitutes a family enterprise, potentially allowing exploitation in industries like beedi factories or agarbatti making units. The former head of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has highlighted that children from marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable to such exploitation due to lack of regulated labour conditions.

India has established a comprehensive legislative framework to protect children from labour exploitation and safeguard their rights. The primary legislative instrument, the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 in any occupation and restricts the employment of adolescents (ages 14-18) in hazardous occupations. This act is a critical tool in addressing child labour, emphasizing the necessity of protecting children from work that can hinder their physical, mental, and social development.

The Factories Act, 1948, reinforces these protections, specifically prohibiting child employment in factory environments under Sections 22, 23, and 27. Similarly, the Beedi and Cigar Workers Act, 1966, bans the employment of children in the beedi and cigar industry, recognizing the hazardous nature of this work.

The Plantation Labour Act, 1951, under Section 25, regulates working conditions for children in the plantation industry, ensuring their rights and safety are maintained. Additionally, the Domestic Workers (Registration, Social Security and Welfare) Act, 2008, under Section 14, bans the employment of children as domestic workers or in related work, acknowledging the vulnerability and exploitation risks in this sector. These legislative measures are complemented by efforts to rescue children from hazardous employments, such as scrap collection, automobile workshops, and garbage landfills.

Despite these robust legislative measures, enforcement remains a significant challenge. The NCPCR Annual Report 2022-2023 highlighted discrepancies in the number of First Information Reports (FIRs) filed regarding child labour violations, indicating underreporting of such cases. For instance, Rajasthan reported 726 FIRs in 2020, yet NCRB data recorded only 476 FIRs for the entire country in the same year. This underscores the need for effective implementation, continuous monitoring, accurate reporting, and stringent enforcement to uphold children’s rights and eliminate child labour practices.

Legal Safeguards: Court’s Role in Child Labour

Indian judiciary has played a crucial role in protecting children from hazardous employment and ensuring their well-being. Courts have recognized the necessity of safeguarding children’s rights to physical and mental development, especially against socio-economic challenges that compel children to contribute financially to their families. Several landmark judgments have reinforced these protections. In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India and Francis Coralie v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi, the courts set the minimum age of employment and affirmed the right to a dignified life, which includes education and protection from exploitation. These judgments established that no child under the age of 14 should be employed in any hazardous occupation, laying the groundwork for subsequent legislative measures.

Recognizing the need for a comprehensive solution to child labour, the judiciary has also emphasized the importance of compulsory education. In the TMA Pai Foundation case, the court enforced the provision of free and compulsory education, highlighting that education is a fundamental right crucial for children’s development and empowerment. This decision underscored that access to education is not only a tool to prevent child labour but also a means to ensure children’s holistic development.

Despite these judicial interventions, the socio-economic realities of marginalized communities pose significant challenges. Many families rely on the additional income generated by their children, making it difficult to eradicate child labour entirely. Therefore, while the judiciary has made significant strides in protecting children’s rights, there remains a need for continuous efforts to address the root causes of child labour.

Exploring the Scope: Child Labour Data in India

According to a 2015 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), India has the highest incidence of child labour among 5-17-year-olds in South Asia, with around 5.8 million children engaged in labour. The report noted a decline in child labour between 2001-2011, more visible in rural areas than urban areas. However, child labour in urban areas increased during the same period due to the demand for cheap, menial work. The construction sector employs the highest number of children in hazardous work. Children aged 7-14 years contribute 4.7% to child labour, while those aged 15-17 contribute 13%. The report highlighted that children above 14 years are often employed in hazardous occupations not covered by child protection laws, compromising their education.

Despite various government initiatives like the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) implemented since 1988 to rehabilitate child labourers, significant challenges remain. The project has faced budgetary issues and is struggling to achieve its objectives. For example, in Ludhiana, NCLP schools are closing due to insufficient funding, and the government plans to merge them with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme. The Child & Adolescent Labour Rehabilitation Fund, intended to ensure the welfare of rescued children, has been stagnant for the past five years, with funds not being distributed for their intended purpose. This reflects the broader issue of inadequate implementation and enforcement of child labour laws and policies.

Conclusion

In the case of M.C. Mehta v State of Tamil Nadu, the court highlighted the primary reasons for child labour: lack of gainful employment, intermittency of income, and low standards of living. The judgment emphasized the need for a balanced approach, recognizing that a complete ban on child labour may result in more inhumane working conditions.

A holistic approach is necessary, where investments in skill training from the school level provide children with better job opportunities and reduce reliance on child labour. Integrating vocational training within the formal education system is imperative to provide children with viable alternatives to child labour. Moreover, ensuring that education is relevant to local job markets.

Vaishali Singh is a Research program & editorial associate (visiting) at IMPRI.

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