Eradicating child labour in India

By Rajeev Arora IAS, Senior Bureaucrat & Policy Expert One of the proudest achievements of...

By Rajeev Arora IAS, Senior Bureaucrat & Policy Expert

One of the proudest achievements of the present government is the giant steps the country has taken towards complete eradication of child labour. A historic development in this direction happened in June this year when India ratified two core ILO Conventions on child labour, namely ILO Convention 138 regarding the age of admission for employment and ILO Convention 182 that deals with the worst forms of child labour.

India’s signing of the two core Conventions of ILO is significant for several reasons. India usually ratifies a Convention only when it is completely satisfied that its laws and practices are in conformity with ILO Conventions. The country has always held the position that a gradual incremental implementation of labour standards towards global benchmarks is an appropriate course of action and that the formal ratification of any Convention can come up at a later stage when it becomes more practicable. Thus, the signing of ILO Conventions 138 and 182 signals that India is now fully confident of tackling the problem of child labour and is in a position to give a legal commitment to the international community in this regard.

The signing of the two ILO Conventions by India is also a huge breakthrough for the global community because, as pointed out by the ILO Director General Guy Ryder, the country’s signing of the ILO Convention 138 means that the global coverage of children under the Convention will jump from 60 per cent to almost 80 per cent while the signing of ILO Convention 182 will push up the global coverage of children under it to 99 per cent.

Complete eradication of child labour is a crucial issue for India as children are a major component of its population. According to the 2011 Census, the share of India’s population below 14 years is as high as 29 per cent while the young in the 14-18 age group constitute another 10 per cent. The welfare of this large component of the population and their potential contribution to society hence would be considerably enhanced by the complete excision of child labour. This will not only help tap the full human resource potential in the country but also boost growth.

India’s signing of the two ILO Conventions on child labour is notable also because the country has historically been slow in recognising the enormity of the problem. For instance, it was only in 1979 that India set up its first statuary committee to research and analyse the issue of child labour in the country. The committee noted that it would not be able to eradicate the problem of child labour as long as poverty shackled a large share of its population and that any effort to banish it through legal means would fail to achieve desired results. In such circumstances, the committee felt the most viable option was to ban of child labour in all hazardous activities and regulate and improve work conditions in other areas. Consequently, it enacted new legislation on child labour: the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 and brought out a National Policy on Child Labour in 1987 that detailed a comprehensive plan of action to combat the menace.

In pursuance of the National Child Labour Policy, the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) was started in 1988 to rehabilitate child labour in hazardous occupations and processes in the first instance. A survey of child labour in hazardous occupations was launched and children were withdrawn from these occupations and sent to special schools so they could be mainstreamed into the formal schooling system. The target group under NCLP was, however, limited to children working in 18 occupations and 65 processes listed in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986.

Evaluation studies on the impact of these efforts were done by the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute to point the way to improving the quality and effectiveness of rehabilitation measures under the various schemes. Though the initial efforts to eliminate child labour were restricted to a small target group, the positive role of the non-government organisations (NGOs) and activists contributed immensely to spreading awareness against child labour and focusing on its prevention, rescue, and rehabilitation efforts.

Currently, while the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 is the main legislation to protect children, there are other legislations that boost the effectiveness of legislative regulations. These include the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, Right to Education Act 2009, and Juvenile Justice Act 2015. In 2016, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was amended to ensure that all children up to the age of 14 years are in school and not working. The amendment to the Act aimed at a complete ban on employment of all children below 14 years and linked the age of prohibition with the age under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009.

The amendment went a step further to prohibit employment of adolescents (14 to 18 years of age) in hazardous occupations and processes and also provided for stricter punishment of employers for contravention of the provisions of the Act. It made the offence of employing any child or adolescent in contravention of the Act a cognizable one. It also had provisions for the Constitution of a Child and Adolescent Labour Rehabilitation Fund. Besides amending the Act, the government has also framed stricter rules which now provide a broad and specific framework for prevention, prohibition, rescue and rehabilitation of child and adolescent workers.

The recent ratification of ILO Conventions 138 and 182 by India should be viewed in this broader context. This move will now lead to a greater convergence of the different measures taken by various Central ministries and state governments and provide a comprehensive mechanism for enforcement of the provisions of various Acts relating to the well-being of children. Further, the ratification of the two Conventions would give India greater recognition at international forums and bring it at par with the majority of countries who have adopted legislation to prohibit or place severe restrictions on employment and work of children.

(When this article was first published on the millennium Post in August, 2017, the author was Joint Secretary, Ministry of Labour & Employment, GoI. The views expressed herein are personal and not on behalf of the Government or any other Organization)