Child labour in India has been prevalent for a very long time. The Juvenile Justice act defines a child as a person who hasn’t completed 18 years, and Article 45 of the Indian Constitution says that it refers to a person below 14 years. It has a drastic physical, emotional and spiritual impact on the children who are forced to work. They are subject to pathetic working conditions, long working hours, harsh methods of discipline and often, sexual assault. They are barely remunerated for their work, and even if they are, their master usually takes it for himself, leaving them with no money and essentially, no way out of their situation. Child begging and trafficking have also become very common in these trade circles. Children as young as six years are forced into prostitution and sex slavery. The International Labour Organization (ILO) views the abolition of child labour as one of its main targets. It has emphasized the need to link child rights with human rights. India launched an extensive action-oriented programme aiming at reducing and eventually eliminating child labour and rehabilitating these children over time. UNICEF also offers aid in various rehabilitation and welfare programmes all over the world about child labour.
The constitution lays down human rights and fundamental rights violations in many of its provisions. Article 15(3) prohibits discrimination on and grounds and empowers the state to make special provisions to uphold child rights. Article 21, which talks about the guarantees the right to life and liberty, states that every human being has the right to lead a life with dignity, which is free of exploitation. The exploitation of children by making them work long hours and in hazardous conditions directly violates Article 21. Further, Article 21A emphasizes on free and compulsory education for all children in the 6-14-year age group. Article 23 makes human trafficking and forced labour a punishable offence, and Article 24 prohibits the employment of any child below 14 years in hazardous environments. This is defined as any environment revolving around construction, matchboxes, fireworks and gunpowder, mines, etc. that have an impact on the child’s health as well as emotional well-being. Articles 39(e) and 39(f), as part of the directive principles of state policy direct that no citizen should be forced into labour out of economic necessity, especially children who don’t have the required strength for the work, and that children should be given opportunities for healthy development with freedom and dignity as guaranteed by Article 21. Article 45 encourages the state to provide education and childhood care for children under the age of 6. Article 51A(k), under fundamental duties, states that every parent must provide opportunities to educate the child between 6-14 years.
Now taking into account the provisions of the constitution, The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 was established, which was later amended by the Child Labour Act 2016. It widened the scope of the 1986 act and provided for strict punishments in case of violations. It prohibits children below 14 years from being employed anywhere. However, if they are contributing to the family business voluntarily, and it does not harm their education in any way, they can be employed. Children aged 14-18 were categorized as adolescents and are allowed to work in normal workplaces, not including any hazardous occupations. Child labour has been made a cognizable offence, and the employer will be liable to imprisonment and fine. A rehabilitation fund has also been set up for the children. Hazardous occupations have further been brought down from 83 to 3, which include mining, inflammable substances and hazardous processes provided for under the Factories Act, 1948. The government is directed to carry out periodic inspection of establishments under this act to ensure that there are no children working in them. By adopting this act, India has aligned with ILO convention standards. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 prohibits children below 12 years from the employment of any kind. It states that children aged 12 and above can work only if the appointed doctor issues a fitness certificate in approval. Under the Apprentices Act, 1961, an adolescent cannot undergo apprenticeship training without satisfying the standard of education and a physical fitness test.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, under Article 23 prescribes a punishment of a six-month jail term or fine or both for any adult who is cruel to a child or assaults them. Further, under Article 24(1), anyone who employs or uses a juvenile or child for begging will be imprisoned for a term that may extend to three years with a fine. Article 26 of the act states that anyone who procures a juvenile or child and employs them in hazardous employment, keeps them in bondage and confiscates their earnings or uses the earnings for their purposes shall be punished with maximum three-year imprisonment along with a fine.
Although all these provisions are in place, the sad reality is that they haven’t had too much impact on the ground. A lot of NGOs like CRY are dedicated to protecting child rights, but there is only so much they can do to enforce it. These NGOs follow the procedure established by the Juvenile Justice Act when they find instances of child labour. They take the children to the CWC and then either reunite them with their family or take them to the homes or rehabilitation. However, there are so many cases that are either not reported or not obvious. These provisions are only efficient when cases are reported or found. There are vast hidden child trafficking and the sex trade. It is a well-covered up business, making these employers very difficult to catch.
Furthermore, there isn’t enough awareness about child rights. Even children themselves often think that certain situations are considered normal. Child work, as opposed to child labour, is alright since it is done in non-hazardous circumstances and has a positive effect on the development of the child. It helps the child in honing a few useful skills and is a conducive learning environment, unlike bonded labour. The child labour rates in India have gone down, especially after the enforcement of the amended Juvenile Justice Act, but it still has scope for further improvement.
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