Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Request for Review of Child Labour (Prohibition ad Amendment) Bill, 2016 // Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan - Child Labour is Being Legalised to Pursue ‘Make in India’ at Lower Cost

To - Mr Pranab Mukherjee,
The Honorable President of India,
Rashtrapati Bhawan,
New Delhi

Sub: Request for review of Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill

On July 26, 2016, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill was passed. The Bill, if it becomes an Act, will have devastating physical and mental health consequences for the children of India. We urgently call on you to send the Bill back for review.

Section 3 of the Bill outlines the circumstances under which child labour is legal. This section permits children to work in order to help their family, or their family enterprises” or “as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry”.

This amendment is in contradiction with article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as it would put children at risk of sexual exploitation, long hours of work, and would effectively deny them a childhood as prescribed under the principles of human rights and children’s rights.

While the Bill appears to increase the minimum age for employment to 14, in reality it has no age limit for children in “families and family-based enterprises” and “audio-visual entertainment”. This is not in line with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention.

The shortened schedule of hazardous occupations proposed in Section 22 omits many occupations that have devastating effects on the physical and mental health of the child[MV1] . Children of any age can now work in brick-kilns, slaughter-houses, electronic units, velding, beedi making, agriculture, slaughter-houses, orchestra parties, pornographic movies in the guise of so-called entertainment, stitching, sowing, cooking, packaging, garbage recycling, toy-making, mixing drugs for pharmaceuticals, home-based brothels…the list is endless.

Section 22, along with Section 3a, will lead to serious violations of the CRC.

Section 18 of this Bill calls for the penalization of parents, who are often not the perpetrators or profiteers in instances of child labour. Criminalizing parents who are already trapped in poverty is not in the best interest of their children.

There are 44 lakh child labourers in our country as per the census of India. 80 per cent of them are Dalits and the other 20 % of them are from backwards castes. Many of these children work with families who are in debt bondage, enslaved by contractors and unscrupulous landlords. They have no bargaining power to keep children at home or send them to school. Imposing fines will only punish low-caste parents further.

Three quarters of child labour in India is in caste-based “family and family-based enterprizes.”  Including such a provision would serve to restrict children in traditional caste-based occupations and would consequently perpetuate social injustice. The Bill places a discriminatory burden placed upon low-caste impoverished children and their parents— as it is unlikely that children whose parents have economic means would be required to work.

This is in contradiction of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution.

The Bill seemingly ensures that child labourers get an education by saying that children can work “as long as this work occurs outside of school hours or during vacations”. However, it does not define the hours of work or the site of work in the so-called “family enterprizes.” This can only increase drop outs as no child can work after school hours and keep up with school. This Bill instead of protecting children in need and ensuring their right to education makes it harder for poor children to study.

Since the site of work in “family and family-based enterprizes.”  is not defined, this could range from a construction site, to a plastic sheet near a garbage dump or a home-based brothel. As it stands the Bill is in contradiction of India’s Constitutional amendment on the Right to Education as well as the Juvenile Justice Act, which promises protection to children in need.

The future of our country lies in the future of our children. If the Bill intended to preserve traditional art and craft of India by enabling parents with traditional knowledge and skills to pass them on to their children, this should be done through a reform and investment in education. We need to restore the 28 % budget cuts in education and the 50 %  for women and children so that mid-day meals are re-instituted for starving children, secure housing provided through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan boarding schools and artisans hired as teachers to pass on traditional knowledge and skills to the next generation.

Gandhiji’s Buniyadi Shiksha and Maulana Azad’s Nai Taleem both recommend teaching traditional art, craft and agriculture, along with reading, writing, mathematics, history, science and geography in school. We are therefore urging you to send the Bill back to the Standing Committee of Parliament for review. We request the following amendments:

  1. In clause 5 of the Bill, the proviso to the amended section 3 should be deleted. After deletion, clause 5 will read as under- “No child shall be employed or permitted to work in any occupation or process.”
  2. Delete sec. 18 to ensure that parents are not put under penal provisions.
Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap Women Worldwide and The Last Girl campaign
Tinku Khanna, Apne Aap Women Worldwide
Harsh Mander, Aman Biradari
Kirti Singh, AIDWA
Malini Bhattacharya, AIDWA
Chitra Sarkar, All India Women’s Conference
Vimal Thorat, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch
Colin Gonsalves, HRLN

Child Labour is Being Legalised to Pursue ‘Make in India’ at Lower Cost
The amended law does a disservice both to the children who want to study but do not have the means, and to the state that owes its future to them. On July 19, parliament passed the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Act. These amendments to a flawed original legislation, have made it virtually impossible to extend the right to education (RTE) to children above the age of 14.  Like its predecessor, the recently amended law does a disservice both to the children who want to study but do not have the means and to the state that owes its future to them.

During the first child labour seminar I attended in the 1990s, the attending government representative brought out reams of data on educational facilities which attempted to show that the blame for the continuation of child labour lay not on an apathetic government apparatus, but on the families who preferred to send children to work. The argument didn’t sit well with the audience, in particular with the community mobilisers, whose knowledge of field realities was different. My restive neighbour, a scholar and activist, mumbled an insight, which has remained with me through all these years – Eklavya se darr aaj bhi lagta hai (they are still scared of Eklaya even today).

Loosely translated, she was pointing out that the powerful elite, just as it had in the past, continues to maintain the status quo by ensuring that access to learning, progress and power is limited to a chosen few. This view has held currency for a long time and yet it does not explain the cynical passage of the carefully crafted amendments to the Child Labour Act in 2016. These amendments have made it virtually impossible to extend the RTE to children above the age of 14. More importantly, now all children above the age of 14 can be put to work as long as they are in non-hazardous family enterprises.

Watching the Rajya Sabha members discuss the amendments prior to the inevitable passing of the Act, the similarities of it with selected passages of the Mahabharata, were hard to miss. Member after member stood up and expressed his or her concern about the legalisation of work for some children. The idea that the state’s responsibility towards children as young as 15 years was limited to regulation of work conditions clearly made several MPs uncomfortable.

One member of the Samajwadi Party likened the Bill’s provisions to a patriarch, singling out that one child who would get all the benefits of a childhood, a well-rounded education and time for recreation, while the other would get the bare minimum of schooling and would have to combine even that with work. His question, ‘Is this fair?’ received no response from the architects of the amendment, the Congress, who are now the opposition, or the BJP, who are now in power and piloting the same bill. While the speakers were different, the sentiments expressed were not in the recently concluded discussion in the Lok Sabha.

Connecting the dots
To understand why the Bill had to immediately become an Act, three other political developments of the past months need to be factored in. First, the upcoming unveiling of a new textile policy. Second, the human resource development ministry’s delay in sharing the T.S.R. Subramanian committee report (and its subsequent replacement  with a note prepared in house). Third, the push through of the amendments to the Child Labour Act, allowing children above the age of 14 to work.

Some time over the summer of 2016, at the usual post-cabinet briefing, the finance minister explained that a new textile policy designed to jumpstart the industry was being prepared. He pointed out that with wages for textile workers having gone up in the three major supplier nations, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, India has once again an opportunity to reclaim its lost space as a major textile supplier of the world. The textile secretary made the point that revitalisation of the sector would open up a lot of employment opportunities for women.

Textile workers in the major supplier countries are predominantly female with the majority being in the 18-25 age group. All the three major supplier countries are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organisation conventions and violations of the age norm for employment in the sector are known to happen, but are uncommon.

Studies have shown that although wages are the smallest proportion of the total cost of apparel manufacture, it is also the most squeezed. In Bangladesh and now in China, to counter the likelihood of a loss of market share, the idea of a garment village has been conceptualised. This is planned as an area where not just a single female worker, but her entire family can live and work together. These villages are being planned away from the expensive big cities in peri-urban areas where the cost of living is less and so wages can be lowered and market share retained.

Ideas like the garment village are most likely to find space in India’s textile policy when unveiled. By itself, however, it is unlikely to be adequate to shape India’s competitive advantage. The finance minister’s announcement about efforts to revitalise the textile sector got attention, only no one correlated it with the then ongoing saga of why was it that the HRD minister was not releasing the Subramanian committee report on a new education policy. Nor was it connected to the early drafts of the Child Labour Amendment Act, which defined the child as a person below the age of 14, thus making it possible for everyone above that age to be legally employed.

While the Subramanian committee stopped short of making a specific recommendation to extend the RTE to children above the age of 14, it certainly widened the window of opportunity for articulation of such a political demand. Officially, the human resource ministry, has to date, not owned the Subramanian committee report or placed it on its own website. Instead, it has put up an innocuous note which has taken some aspects of the committee report and left out others. The note on the HRD ministry website about the proposed new education policy takes many elements from the report, but what it also does is narrow the window of opportunity for extending the RTE beyond 14 years of age. Most adversely affected from this will be girls.

Free secondary schooling opportunities are limited in villages and peri-urban areas. Families are reluctant to send girls far away from home to study, hence leaving them in a limbo. Thus, there exists a pool of adolescent girls with some education, aspirations for a better life and no opportunities to actualise them. Framing the textile industry revitalisation as not just beneficial for the nation’s GDP but also as a pro-adolescent girl child initiative will make for great communications, drowning out the concerns of those who ask why educational opportunities are not being provided to adolescents.

Soon after, the Subramanian committee report was buried in a cabinet reshuffle and the minister was moved from human resource ministry to textiles, a perceived demotion, which perhaps it is not.
And in the first week of the monsoon session of the parliament, a child labour Bill, which gives some children the right to work, becomes a law, thus creating for India the competitive edge of a younger, all legal, largely female pool of available workers.

What the future holds
Possibly the earliest struggle for controlling sovereign power in which children are participants is the Mahabharata. It is an epic narrative that presents, at its most simple level, the story of a regime collapsing over two generations and being replaced by a similar, though not identical one.

The story of the shaping and reshaping of the state of Hastinapur, is told, and retold through episodes in the lives of the principal characters – five brothers, their families and those they come in contact with in their journey from childhood to adulthood. Two of the episodes are of particular interest to the inter-twined child labour and education policy dialogue that has once again been rekindled.

The story of Eklavya, a tribal child who wanted to learn archery at a formal school, but was barred by his social class and the deep seated biases and fears of the elite in the attitude of his teacher, is well known. That the denial of the right to education was not just about an injustice done to an individual, but also a way to perpetuate the existing socio-poitical power balance, is only hinted at in most renditions of this episode of the Mahabharata

The elite determined with maintaining the status quo at any cost manifests in a later episode of the Mahabharata, the sacrifice of Abhimanyu. Eklavya, appears fleetingly, early in the saga, in the struggle for the throne of Hastinapur. At that point the struggle to keep the throne had already led to many compromises with the value system, which had led to the establishment of that state.  Because windows were open and there was seemingly space and encouragement for all to learn, Eklavya emerged as a possible challenger to the established line of succession. That challenge was effectively neutralised and the status quo was preserved for at least one generation.

Years, indeed a generation later, with Eklavya forgotten, the threat to the powerful elite would be much greater and indeed more immediate. At that point, Abhimanyu, still a student with incomplete knowledge would be sent out to do a job for which he was clearly not ready, with the real and present danger that his future, like that of Eklavya’s a generation earlier, would be at the very least compromised. And yet, despite knowing all of this, those who controlled sovereign power would encourage the boy, Abhimanyu, to take on the responsibilities of an adult.

Abhimanyu’s sacrifice actually does what it hoped for, the status quo is maintained, the elite survives and consolidates its grip on power and for the foreseeable future assures control over the state of Hastinapur. In the saga, as now being crafted, the Abhimanyu being readied for sacrifice is most likely to be female.