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TRAGEDY OF THE TINY TOILERS

On July 31, officials of Childline, a helpline for street children in distress, along with the police, raided a house in Calcutta and rescued 11-year-old Champa Barik. Locals had tipped them off that a brothel was being run from the house. Though they could not get any proof of the alleged flesh trade, the officials found little Champa standing in a corner, too scared to speak. Later, the girl told the police how she was made to serve alcohol to customers and get beds ready for them.

Champa is now at a welfare home for girls. Her parents, residents of a village in South 24 Parganas, are desperate to take her back home. “But once she goes home, her parents will force her to go back to work immediately,” says Dilip Bose, co-ordinator, Childline.

Thousands of children like Champa all over the country work as daily wage earners or even as household help. The amendments to the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act, 1986, may come as a boon for them as it proposes to put a blanket ban on employing children under 14 years in any sort of work.

Until now, the law allowed children under 14 to work in non-hazardous environments. But on August 28, the Union Cabinet approved amendments to the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act, 1986, which outlaws employing children under 14 even in non-hazardous occupations. Children between 14 and 18 years have been defined as “adolescents” in the amended act and they can only be employed in non-hazardous occupations.

It has also been proposed that child labour be made a cognisable and non-bailable offence. Employers found guilty of infringing the law may get three years of imprisonment or be fined up to Rs 50,000.

The Centre hopes that the amendment will go a long way in enforcing the Right to Education Act, 2009, which mandates free and compulsory education for all children. Says Shantha Sinha, chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child’s Rights. “It is a welcome amendment which will also ensure the right to education for every child. We should make no more excuses such as poverty, and there should be a collaborative effort on the part of gram panchayats and school management committees that no child is made to work.”

Yet though the government’s move is clearly well-intentioned, experts doubt if the amendments will make any tangible difference to the lives of hapless children who are often forced into labour by their impoverished parents.

Take the case of Shibu Mistri, a 12-year-old boy from Murshidabad, who was working in a catering services company in Calcutta. “Shibu was returned to his parents after they furnished false age proof to the court. The police did not even conduct an ossification test to determine his true age. I am sure Shibu is back to working somewhere,” says Childline’s Bose.

Indeed, those who work in this sector agree that there is no way of ensuring that the rescued child will not return to work. “Since the children come from very poor families, the parents send them to work. When we rescue the children, they even say that their wards were not working but merely staying there and studying,” adds Bose.

Child rights activists agree that merely amending an existing law won’t help. Steps should be taken for proper implementation of the act. Even lawyers are of the opinion that a mere three-year punishment won’t be a big deterrent to child exploitation. “Also, such cases should be dealt with in fast track courts for their fast disposal,” says Tathagata Dutta, an advocate at the Barasat court who deals with child rights cases.

Others doubt the efficacy of the amendments in the absence of meaningful social change. Says Debashis Banerjee, a Calcutta High Court lawyer, “Even if such children are rescued by child rights activists and complaints registered, cases are immediately withdrawn by the parents. Moreover, there is always some confusion regarding rescue work between the police and the labour commission. So the entire system needs to be more responsible and proactive. Mere amendments won’t help”.

In West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, the bidi industry is one of the prime employers of child labour. Hit hard by poverty, parents willingly send their children to work in these factories. Yet in spite of the prevalence of child labour here, there are hardly any complaints about it, reveals a senior district police officer on condition of anonymity.

Most activists agree that the principal problem in tackling child labour is effective rehabilitation for rescued children. Unfortunately, the amendments do not take this into account. “The rescued children are kept in temporary shelters till the case is resolved and then they are handed over to their parents. Then it is usually back to square one. A proper rehabilitation package would have gone a long way in eradicating child labour,” asserts Varun Pathak, city co-ordinator, Delhi Childline nodal Salaam Baalak Trust. Agrees Minati Adhikary, chairperson, Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Calcutta. “Food and shelter arrangements for the rescued children should be in place.”

It doesn’t help that both the police and the labour commission often try to pass the buck when it comes to curbing child labour. For example, when asked how the Bengal government planned to tackle child labour, child welfare minister Shyamapada Mukherjee says, “It’s actually the responsibility of the labour department. But if a child is rescued we will definitely ensure that a complaint is lodged in the concerned police station.”

So unless rigorous steps are taken to implement the law, no amount of amendments can root out the evil of child labour.

Bill Basics

Children below 14 years are prohibited from any kind of work.

Those between 14 and 18 years can work only in non-hazardous occupations.

Non-hazardous occupations comprise home-based work, forest gathering, child care, cleaning and others.

Hazardous occupations comprise mining, working with inflammable substances or explosives, working in brick kilns, stone quarries, etc.

 

Corrigendum

The photograph of a tiger published along with the article “Cat among the pigeons” in The Telegraph dated August 26, 2012, was by Amitava Banerjee. The photo credit was dropped inadvertently. The error is regretted.