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Child labour in India: The struggle achieve SDG 8.7

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The use of children as slaves and labourers in India can be traced back to the ancient times. Chankaya in his Arthashastra mentions prevalence of child slavery during those times. Subsequently, records of the Mughal period mention about child slaves. According to some records, children were as good as commodities and could be sold as such in medieval India. A decree of Akbar in 1594 allowed parents to sell their children and buy them back when they had the resources. Child labourers during those times were made to live in the most oppressive conditions.

Sadly, the practice has continued in the modern times. Since the mid-19th century advent of industrialisation, children were employed in coal mines, cotton and jute mills and several other hazardous occupations. At the time of independence, the practice was widely prevalent in India. According to the NSS data, in 1951, there were around 1.13 crore child labourers in India. Most of them worked in highly exploitative conditions. 

The laws on child labour in India have evolved over the last 140 years. During the colonial period, tentative efforts were made to regulate child labour for the first time. The abolition of child labour in England began in 1833 itself . The process to end child labour in India began much later, though under pressure from liberal and slavery groups. Since then the country has come a long way. 

Laws related to child labour

The first law to deal with child labour was the 1881 Indian Factories Act which prohibited employing of children below seven years of age and regulated their working hours to nine per day. The Indian Factories Act of 1891 increased the minimum age to be a child labourer to nine and prohibited employment of anyone below the age of 14 to be employed for night work. Subsequently, the Mines Act of 1901 prohibited employing any child below the age of 12 in mines. However, towards the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, nothing much changed on the ground. Children continued to be employed day and night in the most hazardous conditions. 

A shot in the arm for laws governing child labour came with the Factories Act of 1911 which restricted the working hours of children to six and provided for an age and medical certificate to employ a child. The Factories Act of 1923 defined factory to be a place where 20 or more people were employed for manufacturing. Earlier, this figure was 100 or more people. However, it was only in 1933 in The Tea District Emigrant Labour Act that for the first time employing any person below the age of 16 was prohibited. However, the law was applicable only to the tea industry. 

The 1935 Factories Act restricted employing anyone below the age of 12 in a factory. A factory was defined as any place where 10 or more people were employed for manufacturing. Under the law, children in the 12-15 age group could be employed for five hours in a day. An important legislation, the Employment of Children Act, came into force in 1938. It prohibited child labour in workshops which were not covered in the Factories Act. However, these legislations failed to cover the huge incidence of child labour in the unorganised sector. 

Child labour post-independence

The 1948 Factories Act stipulated 14 years as the minimum age. However, the biggest legal reform against child labour came in 1950 with the adoption of the Constitution wherein Article 24 made employing children as laborers a violation of their fundamental rights.   

It was only in 1974 that the first National Children Policy was adopted. Another big legal reform to fight child labour came with the passing of the 1976 Bonded Labour  (System) Abolition Act. Till today, it is a key legislation used to punish those who employ child labour. The next important reformist milestone came with the passing of the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. It prohibited child labour in a number of sectors, including the unorganised sector. A child was defined as a person below 14 years of age. The same year, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act was passed. It provided for protection of children from exploitation at workplace.

Global March

In the late 1990s, an important event would have profound impact on child labour laws globally. In 1998, a Global March covering more than 100 countries was organised by social reformer Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement ). The march, which ended at the ILO headquarters, was instrumental in the ILO adopting Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour. The convention brought the world’s focus on the need to act urgently to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.

Nobel Prize 

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Satyarthi in 2014 was a critical point in the global fight against child labour. Satyarthi’s struggles and the Nobel recognition gave a new impetus to the movement against child labour across the world. Since then India has seen major legal reforms in child labour. The 2015 Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act is the most comprehensive law till date that deals with the rights of children in India. In 2016, the Child and Adolescent (Regulation and Adolescent) Act was passed, banning child labour below the age of 14 in both hazardous and non-hazardous sectors. It also prohibited employing children between the age of 14 and 18 in hazardous activities. The following year, India ratified the ILO Convention 182. 

Way ahead 

The struggle to ensure that every child is free from any form of slavery and exploitation is far from over. In spite of all these laws, their weak implementation and lack of conviction has meant that millions of children continue to be engaged in child labour. According to 2011 Census, there were 10.1 million child labourers in India at that time. As the country observes World Day against Child Labour on June 12, it is important that the government takes steps to ensure better implementation of these laws to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 — freeing India of child labour by 2025 — so that every child is able to grow to his or her fullest.

 Article by Amitva Ghosh

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