November, 15, 2003 Updated: 03:42 am
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Not an age to work

Suhas Chakma

The routine reports of atrocities against child labourers are often met with the lack of commitment by the Government to implement the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, and adhocism to eliminate the practice. In 1987, the Indian Government adopted a National Child Labour Policy consisting of a legislative action plan, focusing of general development programmes for benefiting child labour wherever possible and project-based plan of action for launching of projects for the welfare of working children in areas of high concentration of child labour. The Supreme Court in its various judgments, especially the judgements of December 10, 1996, in civil writ petition number 465/1986 and of May 7, 1999, in civil writ petitions number 12125/84 and 11643/85, issued numerous directions for eradication of child labour. Yet, the numbers of child labourers continue to increase.
The lack of seriousness of the Gov-ernment is reflected in its failure to collect precise data on child labour to be able to formulate comprehensive programmes. According to the 1991 census, there are 11.28 million working children in India. According to the 1981 census there were 13.6 million child labourers. The decadal population growth rate during 1981-1991 was 23.86 per cent. There were little child labour eradication programmes until the adoption of the National Child Labour Policy in 1987. Are we to presume that number of child labourers have gone down by 2.32 million in one decade despite decadal population growth rate of 23.86 per cent? Although the 2001 census data on child labour is yet to be released, the Government has already made an allocation of Rs 667.50 crore for the 10th Plan, once again reflecting the adhocism.

What is most disconcerting is the non-utilisation of the funds sanctioned by the Government. Under the Ninth Plan, the Government approved Rs 249.60 crore. By November 2001, a total of Rs 167.42 crore, that is, about 41.84 crore per year was incurred. It remains to be seen whether the remaining Rs 82.18 crore, which is almost double than what was spent per annum for the last four years have been utilised by 2002 as the 10th Plan comes into force in 2003. Similarly, although, Rs 100.76 crore was sanctioned for eradication of child labour under the Eighth Five Year Plan period, only Rs 74.71 crore, which is less than 75 per cent, were utilised.

No poverty eradication programmes have been included to eradicate child labour under the 10th Plan either. In a reply to Parliament on April 7, 2003, Minister of State for Labour Vijay Goel outlined the programmes to eliminate child labour under the 10th Plan. The plan adds nothing new except expanding the coverage of National Child Labour Projects from 100 to 150 child labour endemic districts and linking child labour efforts with the HRD Ministry's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Without specific programmes for eradication of poverty, the 10th Plan is unlikely to significantly contribute to the elimination of child labour in India.

The 1986 Child Labour Act is the main legal instrument to combat the practice. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its concluding observations on India in January 2000, expressed concerns over the large number of children involved in child labour, including bonded labour, especially in the informal sector, household enterprises, as domestic servants, and in agriculture. The Committee also expressed concern that minimum age standards for employment are rarely enforced and appropriate penalties and sanctions are not imposed to ensure that employers comply with the law.

The Child Labour Act does not prohibit employment of children as domestic servants. Although, the Government issued a notification in October 1999, prohibiting Gover-nment servants from employing children below the age of 14 years for any kind of work, Government servants continue to violate the order. On September 24, 2003, the NHRC took suo motu cognisance of child labourers employed by a senior Indian Administrative Service officer in Andhra Pradesh. The Banjara Hills Police of Hyderabad registered a criminal case against a 10-year-old boy, who was employed as a servant at a senior IAS officer's residence, for alleged attempt to poison him. However, it did not register a case against the official for breach of the Child Labour Act.

According to the Government statistics presented before Parliament, in 2002; 88,887 inspections were carried out during which 3,528 violations of the provisions of the Child Labour Act were detected. The Government also stated that during 2000-01 and 2001-02, 24,985 inspections were carried out and prosecutions launched in 99 cases resulted in 13 convictions. The lack of enforcement of the Child Labour Act, 1986, as reflected from the low rate of conviction and the lack of comprehensive programmes for eradication of poverty and proper rehabilitation of the rescued child labourers have been contributing factors for increasing the number of child labourers in India.

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