India’s child workers face uncertain future

New Delhi, October 8 :

Twelve-year-old Indian dishwasher Akhlilesh faces an uncertain future under a new ban taking effect this week outlawing children from working as servants or in the catering trade.

The shy boy, whose boss at the New Delhi tea-stall where he works has told him to leave, does not know where his next stop will be. “I don’t what will happen to me. I’ve been told to look for other work but I don’t know what to do — I’ll see if anyone will hire me,” said he, who ran away from home six months ago after being beaten for breaking a pot.

The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act 1986 already prohibits employing children under 14 in ‘hazardous’ jobs such as those in glass factories and slaughter houses. The ban is po-orly enforced in India, home to the world’s largest number of child workers. Some 12 million children among a population of 1.1 billion people are employed in India, according to census, although activists say the real number is closer to 60 million.

Now, under an amendment to the law that comes into force on Tuesday, employing children as domestic helpers and in hotels, restaurants and roadside cafes will also be considered ‘hazardous’. Activists are doubtful that the legislation, which carries penalties ranging from a prison term of up to two years and/or a fine of up to Rs 20,000 Indian Currency (IC) ($424), will usher in any meaningful change.

“This new rule is a piece of paper, which has no meaning unless translated into serious action,” said activist Bhuwan Ribhu of Save the Childhood Foundation, which works to rehabilitate child labourers. Many law enforcement officials will still turn a blind eye to child labour by saying poor children would probably starve if they did not work.

“We will encourage people to inform us or the police if they find children employed,” said Ribhu. But “child labour is still tr-eated as a social evil, not as a cri-me by most people,” said Ribhu. “Most times police are not willing to act.” The federal government says it plans to make use of existing infrastructure to accommodate the children and has launched an ‘awareness campa-ign.’ Newspaper advertisements informing people about the new act read — ‘Don’t deny them their childhood.”

The federal government has told state governments and charities to make provisions to house child workers in state-run shelters and charities after the ban comes into effect. But it conceded the new rule would not change things overnight. “The government cannot go door-to-door. We can’t post a policeman at every house. Some mechanism will evolve automatically,” said labour ministry spokesman M L Dhar. Many families routinely employ child servants. They believe they are doing the children a favour by hiring them.

“These runaways have nowh-ere to go. If we don’t hire them, they will take to drugs and bad habits,” said Akhlilesh’s employer. “We have told the boys to leave after the 10th or else the police will harass us for bribes, but they don’t want to go. They have nowhere to go.”

Poverty and lack of good primary education are seen as main causes of child labour. About 65 million children aged six to 14 were not attending school, according to census figures. “I don’t like this work, but what to do? I will starve,” said 14-year-old trash-picker Mohan Patel, who lives on the streets.

Mohan, whose bright eyes are a marked contrast to his grubby clothes, earns his living selling discarded plastic bottles he picks up from a railway station. Desp-ite a booming economy growing at more than eight per cent, India has the world’s most poor peopl-e, with some 290 million living in poverty, according to the World Bank. “About 70 per cent and 50 per cent parental responses indicate that children are pushed to work in order to maintain income levels for sustenance and survival of the families,” says a report by non-profit group Global March Against Child Labour.