On the face of it, the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012—recently approved by the Union Cabinet—seems to give the government more teeth in fighting child labour. It prescribes for greater punishment for violations—both prison terms applicable as well as pecuniary penalties have been increased. Even though there is no guarantee that the new provisions will serve as more effective deterrents than the earlier provisions, they signal a stronger resolve within the government to fight child labour. However, the proposed legislation also makes exceptions for the employment of children below 14 years in family enterprises of a “non-hazardous” nature and in the audio-visual entertainment industry, where the child may work as an artiste. All such work, the Bill holds, must be undertaken after school.
Child labour is almost endemic in India—the 2011 census found over 4.35 million children aged 5-14 years employed either part- or full-time—thanks to poor socio-economic conditions forcing many families to offer their children for employment quite early. In this backdrop, allowing for exceptions for employment of children is concerning, especially in occupations that are not explicitly deemed hazardous, could have damaging social implications. For instance, in the carpet-weaving industry, as per a Harvard University study, nearly 20% of the labour consists of children, many of whom are from debt-bonded, poor Muslim families. With much of the carpet-weaving work occurring in a disaggregated manner—with weavers’ homes functioning as manufacturing units—it is difficult to distinguish exploitative employment from working in family enterprises. Besides enforcing desired labour conditions in family enterprises could prove to be a challenge for monitoring. At the same time, forcing out child labour will remain a Herculean task. For poor families that use their children’s labour to supplement household income, there is very little incentive to send children to school instead. The government would be better able to tackle the problem if skills training or vocational education was made a compulsory part of school education instead of providing for exceptions to the laws against child labour.