New Delhi, October 11:

The Indian government on October 9 banned children under 14 from working in homes, hotels and restaurants, aware that the country’s image suffers while its young are employed by middle-cla-ss and businesses. The tightening of the labour law aims to relieve 250,000 children of backbreaking work across India. Employers who violate the law face up to a year in prison or a fine of Rs 10,000 Indian Currency (IC) ($220), or both.

But campaigners say this is at best a tiny step forward as child labour remains widespread in India. The central government’s statistics show more than 16 million children aged between five and 14 work. The World Bank says the figure is closer to 45 million.

Indian television stations yesterday broadcast interviews with children working at roadside eate-ries and many appeared unconcerned about a po-ssible ban. In the residential areas of Delhi youngsters continued to work on tea stalls and fruit juice bars. Poor families often expect children to work and in many cases the yo-ungsters are their families’ sole breadwinner. Others are kidnapped int-o a life of grinding work.

The central government committee that recommended a ban said children are subjected to physical violence, psychological traumas and sexual abuse; incidents which go unnoticed as they take place in the closed confines of households, roadside restaurants and resorts.

The UN’s children agency, Unicef, said the legislation was “necessary but not adequate in itself to ensure that these children grow up under parental care, go to school, do not go hungry, are protected from abuse and discrimination”. But there are doubts over whether the law will be properly enforced.

“Under this act there is no money for rehabilitation. Under previous laws the state had to pay Rs 25,000 IC for the care of each child freed. But this new provision contains no such clause,” said Swami Agnivesh, leader of the Arya Samaj, which campaigns against child labour in India. Agnivesh, whose organisation has freed 15,000 children in the past 20 years, said the government had not ensured that all children could go to school.