NEW DELHI: While the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 received much attention and was highly debated by several sections of civil society, child rights groups and members in the Rajya Sabha with stalwarts like Shashi Tharoor and Maneka Gandhi making passionate speeches, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015 has received little attention.

Not only has there been limited conversation on the issue, but even parliamentarians have shown little interest given that only a small number of MP’s were present during the debate on Child Labour and at the time of voting for or against the Bill.

It is important to also note that the discussion around the Child Labour Bill has been addressed primarily as a ‘labour’ issue rather than an issue concerning ‘children.’ Ideally, the Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development should have been present and a part of the debate but was absent.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha by then Minister of Labour and Employment – Mallikarjun Kharge- in December 2012, seeking amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

The proposed amendments in the Bill seek prohibition of employment of all children under the age of 14 years of age in line with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009; making an exception for children helping their family after school hours, in the fields or in home based work.

The Bill defines a newly created category of ‘adolescents’ as individual between the age of 14 – 18 years of age and prohibits the employment of adolescents in hazardous occupations and hazardous processes as defined under the Factories Act, 1948; proposes the removal of provisions for the regulating working conditions of children/ adolescents under the Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act, 1986 and makes provisions for the enhancement of punishment for employing children or employing adolescents in hazardous occupations.

The Standing Committee on Labour submitted its report on the proposed amendments in December, 2013. In its report the committee pointed out and suggested:

- Provisions for the exception of children to work in the field or home based work, be removed as they it provides loopholes for exploitation and regulation would be a challenge. It also pointed out that provisions be made for prohibition/ regulation of children/ adolescents working in the audio – visual entertainment industry.

- The meaning and definition of hazardous occupations / processes be widened to include occupations/ processes which threaten or jeopardise the health, safety and well being of children/ adolescents.

- Provisions for regulation of working conditions of adolescents in non – hazardous occupations be made.

- Punishment for parents of working children must take into account factors such as poverty, neglect, trafficking, etc.

- Provisions for rescue and rehabilitation of working children and that a Child Welfare Fund must be constituted from the fines collected for the rehabilitation of rescued children.

- Setting up of vigilance and monitoring committees

- A new Child Labour Policy for the rescue and rehabilitation of children and adolescents which is comprehensive in nature and takes into account the coordination of various ministries such as Labour, Human Resource Development, Women and Child Department and Urban and Rural development as opposed to existing fragmented approach

The Standing Committee on Labour in its report pointed out that “(...) instead of entrusting various ministries with this task, the government should bring a New Child Labour Policy and the machinery to implement laws, policies and projects should be specified therein”.

Followed by the submission of the Standing Committee on Labour report in December 2013, the Amendment Bill did not come up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha until the Winter Session of the Parliament in November, 2015, during which the present Minister of Labour and Employment – Bandaru Dattatreya – proposed further amendments to the Bill based on the report of the Standing Committee.

The amendments proposed in 2015 do not take into account all the recommendation made by the Committee but only a few such as regulation of working conditions and setting of safety standards for adolescents; parents/ guardians of children/ adolescents to not be punished in case of first offence; rehabilitation of rescued children/ adolescents in accordance with the existing law and setting up of child/ adolescent labour rehabilitation fund at district level.

Having mentioned the amendments which have been passed in the Rajya Sabha it is important to point out that these changes are only minor and like the previous law will fail to address the issue of Child Labour.

Instead of minor changes what is required is nuanced, more comprehensive approach which addresses the root causes of why children work as opposed to the simplistic approach of a complete ban and forcing children into education.

The present law is only going to further push working children into invisible, more exploitative forms of work. What is required is a detailed understanding of why children are having to and in certain cases choosing to work rather than pursuing education. As pointed out by Kanimozhi Karunanidhi (DMK) during the debate in the Rajya Sabha the present education system does not cater to the ground realities of children by providing a uniform solution; what is required for formulating a effective and comprehensive law to address child labour is a thorough needs assessment as mentioned by Ravi Prasad Verma (SP) and focus on skill development as pointed out by Vivek Gupta (AITC) in their respective speeches.

In order to address child labour in a more effective and efficient manner, direct stakeholders, i.e. working children and their families need to be consulted and involved in the policy making processes, given that they are best aware of their realities and struggles.

With little or no access to basic necessities, poverty, education that does not address ground realities and poor welfare provisions and structures, working children and their families are left with no other choice.

While several child rights groups and individuals demand a complete ban on child labour saying that all children have the right to and must enjoy childhood and access education, it is important to keep in mind that these very children also have the right to life and it is often in this quest and struggle for their family and their own survival that they are forced to /choose to work in order to overcome and rise above their impoverished realities.

(The writer holds a M.A. in Social Work in Disability Studies and Action; She is a Social Activist (Disability, Mental Health, Gender and Sexuality, Women and Child Rights); Poet and Writer)