The lockdown has given us the chance to ensure that child labourers are rehabilitated and not re-trafficked or re-hired
Prohibition of child labour and forced labour have been guaranteed as a fundamental right in our Constitution. This was followed up by the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1986. All this time, the Child Labour Act prohibited employment under the age of 14 years only, even though in law, a child was defined as a person under the age of 18. This anomaly was recognised and rectified by the Government by way of a significant amendment to the Child Labour Act in 2016, renaming it as the Child and Adolescent Labour Prohibition Act and prohibiting therein the employment of an adolescent between the ages of 14 and 18 in any hazardous occupation or process.
What then is the actual number of child and adolescent labour in our country? Putting it differently, how many children are undoubtedly being denied the right to an education, the right to a wholesome future? Unfortunately, the answer is, no one knows exactly. After 2011, there is no authoritative Government data on the number of child labourers, and none whatsoever on the number of adolescent labourers in India. How do we propose to solve a problem, the proportion of which we have no idea of. What makes matters worse is that even when underage workers are rescued, the cases leading to prosecution are abysmal. In 2018, there were a mere 34 convictions under the Child Labour Act in the entire country.
This year has brought enough bad news to last a century. Now for the silver lining. A sizeable population of the country find themselves unemployed and stranded at their places of work due to Covid-19 and its resultant lockdown. Thousands of factories have shut down or have suspended operations and are not functioning. Therefore, as on date, considering the unemployment and unavailability of work, there is movement of thousands of migrant labourers from the State where they work to their native State. Many of these migrant workers include child labourers, who are currently awaiting the Government’s Shramik trains or buses to reach there. Most of these are children who have had the misfortune of being holed up in factories, unidentified, unaccounted for and unseen. So far, they had been outside the purview of the law, as they could not be traced and thus could not be rescued. However, the lockdown has presented an opportunity where many child labourers, who were previously obscured and hidden in factories and establishments as faceless, nameless entities, denied the many benefits of Government schemes and their basic fundamental rights, are now identifiable.
Each State now has complete details of how many migrant labourers are registered with it on its e-portal to return to their native State. Each native State has complete detail on who is entering its borders and the Centre has access to this complete data through its newly-launched National Migration Information System (NMIS) portal. Where previously State borders were extremely porous, today borders cannot be passed as easily. For the first time, many child labourers are getting registered on a Government platform in a bid to take benefit of the Government’s Shramik train and buses to return home, as employers are unable to provide for their workmen and there is no work.
Once a child labourer has returned to the native State, s/he is easily traceable, for all his/her details are available when the border has been crossed. All steps must be taken to rehabilitate and provide them with the benefit of Government schemes, including recovery of back wages, so that the family is provided with succour. Child Welfare Committees and State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCRs) must ensure that the child labourers are suitably rehabilitated, and at the same time, the Anti-Human Trafficking Units of the State must identify traffickers to ensure children are not re-trafficked or sent back when the reverse migration starts.
In other words, each child labourer must be accounted for. In fact, the Supreme Court has already directed that complete details of migrant labourers that have already returned home, including their skill, nature of and place of previous employment must be maintained at the village, block and district level by the administration so as to facilitate the extension of various Government schemes.
A few days ago, the Chief Justice of India, while hearing a PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan on taking necessary measures to curb and control rising child trafficking, observed that it is “we” who provide a market for child labour. Days later, in another PIL filed in the apex court, the preservation and sharing of the data on migrant labourers was sought so that State agencies such as Child Welfare Committees and SCPCRs could identify and rehabilitate wasted children. The response of the State and Centre on both the petitions has been sought by the court, which would come up for hearing later this month. It is the same “we” that must rise to the occasion to pledge that every child, no matter what his/her circumstances, will not be made to work.
The lockdown has created a historic opportunity for us to ensure that child labourers are rehabilitated as per law and are not re-trafficked or put back to work. The Government must seize this unprecedented opportunity that has presented itself and ensure these children finally get their right to a childhood.
(The writer is a senior advocate and human rights activist)
Friday, 12 June 2020 | HS Phoolka
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