Debating India

CHILD LABOUR

The laws and the reality

Asha KRISHNAKUMAR

Thursday 28 August 2003, by KRISHNAKUMAR*Asha

IF the plethora of laws and constitutional provisions (in Articles 17, 19, 21, 23, 24 and 39) are implemented seriously, it can help prevent child labour and redeem children from bondage.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 in 13 occupations and 57 processes, including weaving, and since 1999, sericulture processing and zari-making. Violaters face three months to one year of imprisonment and a fine of Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000.

However, Section 3 of the Act exempts processes carried out with "the aid of the family," and the Kancheepuram silk-weaving industry seems to be exploiting this loophole. In the vertical production structure, work is contracted out to households, which use child labour freely.

Almost every child employed in silk weaving in Kancheepuram constitutes a case of debt bondage, in violation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933. The 1976 Act frees all bonded labour, cancels the debts against them, prohibits the creation of new bondage agreements, and orders the state to economically rehabilitate the labourers. Chapter V of the 1976 Act requires Vigilance Committees to be set up in districts.

In 1993, in the Unnikrishnan vs the State of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court stressed that all children below 14 should be sent to school. Besides, the Constitution (93rd) Amendment (to make free and compulsory education a fundamental right), obliges States to provide free and compulsory education to all children between six and 14.

In 1996, the Supreme Court, in the M.C. Mehta versus the State of Tamil Nadu and others found that child labour was widely prevalent despite the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. The court ordered inspectors to identify the children employed, and fine the employers Rs.20,000 for every child employed. The fine amount was to be deposited in a Child Labour Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund, which was to be used only for the child concerned.

In 1997, the Supreme Court elaborated on this framework in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha et al. vs the Union of India and others, and ordered States to "evolve steps" to provide all freed children compulsory education, conduct regular health check-ups, provide nutritious food and so on.

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