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‘Changes to child labour law contradict govt's Make in India, Digital India and Smart Cities Mission

Child rights activists have been protesting against Parliament passing the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi spoke to Himanshi Dhawan about why he thinks the new legislation, which amended the previous Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, is a missed opportunity.

What is your view of Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, passed by Parliament?

This is a missed opportunity for the future of millions of our children. I am deeply disappointed and quite surprised that labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya [minister of state with independent charge] has not listened to the voice of millions of children. But laws are not the end of the road. I believe in the power of children and youth in building a much stronger social movement.

I was hoping that the first phase of my 36 year struggle would be over with the passing of a strong law against child labour and that i could thereafter begin work on the implementation of the law but the first phase is still not over. The struggle that we have been engaged with for the last three decades will continue.

One of the objections that you have raised is that the new law allows children under 14 years of age to participate in family-run businesses. Would you rather be arresting parents for letting their children help them?

The flaw in this legislation is that the line between learning with your parents and economic exploitation is blurred. This is so misleading. I have rescued thousands of children from uncles and aunts who are traffickers. They keep the children as bonded slaves. Our experience is that this will continue.

The other inherent contradiction in the law is that repeat offenders will be punished but there is no clarity on a first time offender. How will you establish a first time offender?

What are your other objections?

The second main objection is that the number of hazardous occupations in the new amended legislation has been reduced from 83 to three. Children can now legally work in glass furnaces, bidi-making, brick kilns and zari factories. Government has the power to amend the list of hazardous occupations and i hope we can convince them to do so.

But the Act has increased penalty provisions for those employing child labour and violations have been made a cognisable offence. Isn’t that good?

This law has covered some miles but we have not reached the destination yet. These welfare laws are not amended every day. The original law was brought in 1986 after a long struggle and at the time socio-economic arguments like poverty were given in defence of child labour. We are repeating the same arguments to further victimise the child.

We need to outlaw child labour completely and not in a piecemeal manner. We have lost three generations of children. It is ironical that the land of Buddha and Gandhi has decided to look at children through the commercial lens and to take away their divine right to childhood.

You met PM Modi to press for changes in the law some months ago. What would you say to him now?

When i met him, i explained that there is an inherent contradiction in what this law seeks to achieve and the government’s schemes like Make in India, Digital India and Smart Cities Mission. How can you have a smart city if children are engaged in domestic labour? This government has invited big investors under Make in India. But if we don’t have an educated skilled workforce, how will we attract big investors? This ‘golmaal’ mix won’t work.

The country’s growth rate cannot increase and we cannot compete internationally like this. Only if we face these realities will we have a demographic dividend. Big investors are dependent on local producers but if they are found to be using child labour, India will have to face international embarrassment. Many countries like Bangladesh, Brazil and Cambodia have had their products boycotted because of this very reason.

We need to put our house in order instead. We have miserably failed in ensuring children’s attendance in schools despite a law that says that this is their fundamental right.

Are you planning to seek legal recourse then?

I am examining the Act’s language and will take a decision soon.

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