The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stars for toiling child
- Sceptical of govt enforcing ban, NGOs go to Bollywood

New Delhi, Oct. 9: When faith in the government’s ability is thin, turn to Bollywood.

That’s what non-government organisations are doing as the law making it illegal to employ children under the age of 14 as household help takes effect from tomorrow.

Under recent amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, under-14 children cannot be hired as domestic help or in eateries, spas and gyms in addition to all the other workplaces where it was prohibited earlier.

If someone is found to be still employing child labour, the minimum punishment will be six months in jail and a fine of Rs 20,000. If found guilty of harassment — sexual or otherwise — violence and other crimes, punishment will be additional.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today appealed to people to “stop employing children as workers and actively encourage children to join schools”.

NGOs fear, and labour officials warn, that the law, too, will remain just an appeal as the government has neither inspectors nor the mechanisms to detect and prevent violations.

“There is a clear lack of political will, which is reflected in the absence of a clear, structured framework,” said Kailash Satyarthi, head of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, who has been campaigning against child labour for over 25 years.

Desperate, NGOs have sought the hand of friends in Bollywood, which is known for spinning dreams.

Still enjoying the rave reviews she has received for her role in Dor, Gul Panag told The Telegraph she felt “emotionally conjoined to the issue of child labour”, but did not elaborate why.

There is Shabana Azmi, ever the activist, and there is Mahesh Bhatt, whose involvement, too, is no surprise. But there’s Panag. And Manisha Koirala and Ashutosh Rana.

Bhatt said from Mumbai he would speak to other actors and film personalities, urging them to join the campaign.

“Given the status filmstars have in our country, if we campaigned against child labour, more and more middle-class people who employ child help at home would start being looked down upon by their neighbours and friends,” he said.

Social taboo can do what the law cannot, Bhatt’s hoping.

A serious shortage of labour inspectors, who travel from place to place to ensure children are not employed, could prove the biggest roadblock to enforcing the law, which, after amendment, includes households in the purview of the ban.

“Across the country, there is already a shortage of labour inspectors, with at least 20 per cent vacancies. Now, the shortage will become even more prominent,” said the deputy labour commissioner of Delhi, Rajender Dhar.

If inspectors were to focus on child labour alone, violations of other labour laws would go unchecked, Dhar said.

A separate force of inspectors with fixed responsibilities is the solution, officials said.

NGOs raise other concerns. The Centre, they say, has remained silent on how it plans to rehabilitate and repatriate the children who have been kidnapped and made to work.

The Prime Minister said children rescued during raids would be educated under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

That is easier said than done since it is hard to keep in school even children from underprivileged families who live with their parents.

Even Dhar, the labour official, recognises the role of Bollywood as “crucial” since it would be “next to impossible for inspectors to check each house and shop”.

What does Bollywood say to that'

Here’s Panag: “All I can say is that I will always be there to support the prevention of child labour in every capacity I can.”

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