Every day, as the dawn breaks at the small village of Shivnagar, Nutan has to get up from bed, and with reddened, puffy eyes still half-closed with sleep, has to trot along with her parents limping to the brick kiln near their village. Nutan can’t think of going to school even in her remotest dreams, as no one from her

family had ever made it to. Hailing from the extremely poor Mahato community at the furthest corner of the district of Munger, this 12 year old girl has to work at the brick kiln while most of her friends go to school every day. As the evening comes, back home she finds herself doing the dishes and helping her mother in every day family chores, till her wobbly legs ache in pain and eyes are swollen with deep slumber.

Nutan’s story however takes a positive turn as Disha Vihar, a grassroots level organization supported by CRY stands beside her, and after long rounds of discussion and counselling with their parents, finally manages to send her to school.

But just a few questions before we start celebrating Nutan’s success. What about the multitudes of other Nutans all around, who are still denied of their rights, and still have to spend their childhood days working in brick kilns, in open hearth coal pits, or in the dingy bidi rolling workshops? What about those 10 millions of kids in the Country, who are yet to count their steps to schools?

Before we get to examine the issue more closely, let us have a quick look at some figures that put us into the right perspective. Census 2011 data show that among 250 millions of children within the age group of 5-14 years, more than 10 millions are engaged in some sort of work. More detailed age-group-wise data suggest that 2.5 millions of working children belong to the age group of 5-9 years, while around 7.6 millions come from the age group of 10-14 years.  The same sets of Census data also tell us that around 4.3 millions of the children of India are engaged in labour throughout the whole year, while 1.9 millions work for three months a year, and 3.8 millions work for three to six months a year.

If we look at the state-wise distribution of child workforce, Uttar Pradesh tops the list with a whopping 2.1 millions, and Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh closely follow, together to contribute to the total population of working children by 55%.  The total number of Indian children working in the urban set up counts to 2 millions, among which 1.1 millions come from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat.

More than three decades of on-ground experience in working with underprivileged children has taught us that the glaring gaps in addressing the issue lie both in the policy level, and at the mindset of the people at large as well. The Right to Education Act (RTE) does not include children in the age group of 14-18 years, and similar gaps are there in the existing Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (CLPRA), which does not bring in the children of 14-18 years within its purview. Several Child Rights Organizations have been advocating for modification of Child Labour laws as per declarations of The UN Convention on Child Rights and ILO Conventions, but, though the National Policy for Children 2012 has defined a child to be any person below 18 years, these laws are yet to be brought into parity.

Apart from age-related issues in defining childhood, weak provisions of punishment and fines for the offending employers in the existing Child Labour Act also have somewhat diluted the effectiveness of the law. The policy-makers, though expected to show positive intent in the best interest of the child, have not yet taken adequate proactive measures to address issues related to rehabilitation of the working children in a comprehensive and full-proof manner.

At the same breath it should be mentioned that more coordinated approach in inter-departmental and multi-functional processes and operations in rescuing children from child labour and mainstreaming them in the society could have addressed the issues in more fruitful ways. Even though the Intensive Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) ensures an overall coordination among different concerning bodies, the district-level Child Welfare Committees (CWC) are not fully capacitated to understand their responsibility and deliverables; nor the newly proposed Child Protection Committees (CPC) at all levels have started working in full swing.

Keeping these gray areas in mind, there has to be strong opinion building in favour of harmonizing the age of children across various social and labour legislations. We do believe that legislation should not divide children into child and adolescent (as the recent amendment to CLPRA proposes) as both are equally vulnerable. The Law should not allow any child below 18 years of age to be engaged in any kind of employment. At the same time, the Right to Education Act 2009 (RTE) should be extended to all children up to 18 years of age.

Also engaging in home-based work denies children of their right to education and recreation. The law should not legitimize home based work. Rehabilitation of working children is also a non negotiable, and should be integral to the law. Institutionalized rehabilitation process at the district, state and inter-state level will certainly help mainstream children coming from working backgrounds.

This is also a very common experience that large numbers of children are trafficked from rural areas for work. Efforts should be made to evolve village and block level mechanisms for the protection of children, develop explicit linkage of child labour legislation with juvenile justice, trafficking and integrated child protection scheme. To address this, clarity of role and convergence is needed among stakeholders for the rescue of working children. This can be achieved by ensuring better coordination among ministries like Women and Child Development, Labour, Rural Development and Human Resource Development. And being the primary duty bearer, can Government abdicate its responsibility regarding this?

But restructuring the legal parameters and streamlining the standard operational procedures are not enough in restoring children’s rights. Strengthening livelihood opportunities and social security of the affected families is perhaps equally important, if not more, so that parents are not compelled to send their children to work for the mere reason of subsistence.

And last but not the least, we must remember that child protection is not, as it should not be, only an administrative agenda. It is, by all means, everyone’s responsibility. Child labour can never be eliminated, until we take it as a social priority. It’s always easier to call for widespread awareness campaigns, but the need of the hour is to start the battle against our age-old practice to employ children.

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