In a shameless hoax, India's ruling party pushed through a legislation recently that said it was banning child labour in its first paragraph, but actually legalized 90 per cent of the country's child labour of all ages through a clause in a later paragraph. Section 3 in clause 5 of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act allows child labour in family, "family enterprises" or "as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry". The majority of India's child labour is caste-based work in poor families that are trapped in intergenerational debt bondage.
Placed on July 19 in the Rajya Sabha, the legislation moved rapidly to the Lok Sabha on July 26 and was signed by the president on the morning of July 27. Many members of Parliament had read only the first few pages of the 82-page bill when it was presented to the Rajya Sabha in the afternoon just after lunch. At first glance, the legislation seemed extremely progressive. Not only did the bill increase the age to 18 for children to be kept out of work but also imposed huge fines on "whoever" employed children. This would surely protect children, thought two MPs from two different political parties that I spoke to. They did not realize that the 'whoever" included huge fines on poor parents, already under the control of powerful contractors and employers. This law would push parents further into debt bondage and in the control of contractors.
Nor did they realize that buried deep, on page 79, Section 22 dangerously shortened the list of hazardous occupations for children to just three things: mining, explosives and those in the Factory Act. A sample list of work no longer hazardous for children is mixing dangerous chemicals, recycling garbage, welding and electric units, slaughter houses, brick kilns, orchestras, selling at traffic signals, domestic work, casting couches of TV and movie studios, sexualized dancing and singing and back-breaking agriculture. Or that the word "omit" was surreptitiously introduced in Section 4 on page 49. Under the new law, government authorities can now "omit" anything as being listed as hazardous, even mining and explosives and other dangerous work listed under the Factory Act, without going to Parliament.
Thirty seven Lok Sabha MPs across parties, including one from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, realized the devastating consequences of the provisions and spoke up against the bill. They forced a five-hour debate but could not overcome the overwhelming majority that the ruling party has in the Lok Sabha. Activists sent a letter to the president, asking him to send the bill back for review. Strangely, he signed the bill in less than 24 hours of getting it from Parliament.
There are 1,01,28,663 child labourers in the country aged between 5 to 14 years as per the 2011 census. Not only will the Act lock children in caste-based occupations for generations, it will also increase the drop-out rate in schools. While professing that children should work only after school hours or during vacation, the Act does not define the number of hours or the site of work. How will a child be able to cope with both school and work? The Act contradicts India's constitutional amendment to Right to Education and the Juvenile Justice Act, which promises protection to children in need. It also contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which India is a signatory.
Eighty per cent of India's child labour comprises Dalit children. The other 20 per cent are from underprivileged groups. The fatal combination of legalizing child labour, the closure of schools and the stopping of mid-day meals due to fund cuts can only lead to the 'final solution'. The Nazis buried children. In India we will work them to death.