India once considered a stagnant country because there were billions of people living in poverty, has now seen its economy boom and became the fastest growing economy with a 7.5% estimated GDP rate. But that is not the whole picture. As stated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than 150 million children and teenagers are victims of child labour around the globe, and India has long been one of the worst culprits. Child labour can be explained in simple terms as “expecting and therefore exploiting children to work and fend for themselves”. This is a serious problem in most developing nations and it is often not realized that the children lose their opportunity to live a safe and healthy life. There are millions of children in India under the age of 18 years, representing 39% of the country’s total
population. According to data from Census 2011, the number of child labourers in India is 10.1 million of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls.
Child labour is defined by India’s census 2001 office as “participation of a child less than 17 years of age in any economically productive activity with or without compensation, wages or profit.” The above-mentioned participation can either be physical, mental, unpaid, part-time or all of the above. The reason child labour is rampant in underdeveloped and developing countries is that the families earn very little and find it insufficient to meet their needs and as a consequence send their children off to work. Likewise, when an adult member of the family is unemployed, the child is sent to work to replace them. According to the 2005 U.N statistics, more than one-fourth of the world’s people live in extreme poverty.
Access to quality, free education is also limited in India. Families are not able to pay for education and hence send them to work. To combat this issue, in 2009, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was enacted to give effect to Article 21A of the Constitution. This offers children from the age of 6 to 14 education elementary education without any fees. In Ganesh Ram vs the State Of Jharkhand And Ors, a bench of S Mukhopadhaya and N Tiwari held on 5 April 2006 that “if an individual under the age of 14 years is hired, a penal order can be passed against the employer under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act 1986), but no order of this kind of nature can be passed against the employee.”
There are some assumptions that child labour exists in only rural areas. But this is not true. In urban areas, child labour exists in the formal as well as informal sector enterprises, though its presence in the latter is more frequent. Small-scale manufacturing enterprises often function with the exploitation of children. This is mostly due to the ignorance of legal restrictions. In these factories, the children often work for their parents or relatives. Frequently, they are not paid directly but through an additional wage paid to the head worker. Children also migrate to urban areas to work for educated families irrespective of the several laws that violate the employment of children. They often work as domestic help and assist in taking care of the younger children in the house. Likewise, in rural areas, parents often expect the children of the family to assist them in their work. When there is a lack of awareness of social security measures and the rights of children, the dependency on them increases and at one point they are for-seen as the sole breadwinner of the family. In this manner, parents consider their children as an asset or moneymaking figure to the house who economically contribute to the income. Girls from socially disadvantaged groups are at a higher risk of being forced into child labour as they are often forced to drop out of school at an early age. Once they attain the age of puberty some of them are frequently forced into prostitution in a promise that they would be given a stable income for their family. There are also numerous cases of begging where the parents forcibly send their children to beg to support the family.
Due to the safety hazards in the workplace children are often prone to various accidents. These can cause them lifelong harm. For example, in firework manufacturing industries in the Southern part of India, child labour is widespread. There is a higher chance of injuries such as burns, cuts, respiratory and breathing problems and skin diseases due to the toxicity of the chemicals they are working with. Child sexual abuse and STDs, abuse of drugs and alcoholism are also the consequences of child labour. Due to these factors, they are unable to access education and experience life as a normal child. They often face neglect both in physical aspects such as food, clothing, shelter and medicine and mental aspects such as compassion and a sense of security.
Child labour also affects the economy a great deal. Since they are unable to access quality education, they are not given a chance to develop themselves in any way; be it emotional, psychological or intellectual. They go through physical stress and exertion on an everyday basis and as a consequence often become permanently reduced of their physical strength. This makes them prone to diseases. Ultimately the human resource of the country is affected as an economy can prosper only if their population is resourceful, healthy and educated. The younger generation plays a huge part in human capital formation and child labour majorly affects this.
Various laws have been implemented by the Indian government since 1933 to take action against child labour. The Factories Act 1948  mentions that no young person should be employed in any part of the factory. The Plantation Labour Act in 1951 prohibited the employment of children below the age of 12. The Indian Factories act states that no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in a factory. There are rules that a factory has to follow if they employ pre-adults that are between 15-18 years of age.
Among all of the above-mentioned acts, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 was considered as an eyeopener of the widespread exploitation of children all over the country. Its main objective was to address the social concern and prohibit the engagement of children who have not completed 14th year of age in certain employments and to regulate the conditions of work of children has been prohibited in occupations relating to transport, weaving, soap works, factory working etc. Likewise, Article 23 of the Indian Constitution mentions that any type of forced labour is prohibited. Article 24, it is specifically stated that children under the age of 14 cannot be employed to do any hazardous work. Not long ago, The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 was introduced. According to this act, if any person is guilty of employing a child in a hazardous work condition, he/she will be punishable under the Act. Additionally, The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 was passed by the Parliament in 2016. It imposes a fine on any person who employs adolescents to work.
These laws have no doubt, helped to control the exploitation of children but many still manage to find several loopholes in the above laws which in the end, do more harm than good. For example, in the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Bill, the list of hazardous occupations for children has been reduced to just mining, explosives and occupations mentioned in the factories act. This gives the chance to the exploiters to use children in cotton farms, brick kilns, chemical mixing units etc. Furthermore, according to Section 4 of the same act, even the list of hazardous occupations can be up to the discretion of the government at that time. The hours of work are also not mentioned in the act, and it simply states that children may work after school hours or during free time. When people manage to find such loopholes in order to exploit children it is necessary to make child labour laws more specific and the punishment granted must be sterner and more impactful.
June 12 is celebrated as Anti Child Labour Day, yet there are so many child labourers that we see in our day to day life. Several activists claim that the Child Labour Act, 1986 is still not enforced properly all over the country and even if it is, people choose to turn a blind eye owing to either ignorance or corruption. One must always remember children enjoy the same rights as other people and they are the most important resource in nation-building. Supporting NGOs such as “CRY” and “Child Rights and You” and educating parents about the importance of education are few ways to abolish child labour. The number of child labourers decreased by 65% between Census 2001 and Census 2011. This is indeed a positive sign but India still has a very long way to go. The goal of abolishing child labour completely and making our country a better place for children to live in can be achieved.
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