“Few human rights abuses are so widely condemned yet so widely practiced. Let us make child labour a priority because a child in danger is a child that cannot wait.”
-Kofi Annan, Former U.N. Secretary
India is a country which has witnessed child labor on a large scale. In its literal sense, child labor means indulging a child below 14 years of age in activities that involve use of human labor, hazardous or non hazardous. Children in India are prone to child labor even after many strong regulations to prohibit child labor.
Recent global estimates based on data of UNICEF, the ILO and the World Bank indicate that 168 million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labour. Millions of them suffer in the other worst forms of child labour, including slavery and slavery-like practices such as forced and bonded labour and child soldiering, sexual exploitation, or are used by adults in illicit activities, including drug trafficking.
In various researches, it was found that the basic reason behind child labor is poverty, because of which it cannot be so easily abolished. It is seen so often that the children are sent by the parents as a source of their living. Also, many innocent children are dragged forcefully in the baneful phenomenon of child labor.
Many Judges have opined that in a poor country like India, it is impossible to eradicate child labor all at once. However, constant efforts are being made starting from the most hazardous activities like involvement of child labor in match factories, fire crackers, carpet and weaving industries etc.
The most important contribution in this regard can be considered is of Mr. Kailash Satyarthi who has made innumerable efforts to eradicate child labor and to protect children from being an easy target to it. He and his wife have throughout their life made many contributions for the issue. They run Mukti Ashram where the rescued children are safely kept and provided chances for recreation and overall development. He has made many sting operations and rescue missions to help the children come out of this baneful phenomenon. He has witnessed many attacks on himself, got injured several times and had to send his children abroad for their safety but he never gave up on this issue and is still in this field, rescuing children every day.
Exploring the legal ambit of it, the origin of statutory protection of child labor in India can be traced back to the Indian Factories Act, 1881. This law mainly regulated working hours, rest intervals, minimum wages and nature of work of child labor but it does not prevented the employment of children. Later on the Children Act, 1933 was enacted to prohibit the pledging of labor of children below 14 years by parents. It prescribes Punishment for parents and employer of the child. It imposes minimum fine of Rs. 200 to the employer for employing child labor and also Rs.50 for the parents who pledged their children for the labor.
In the Year 1938 the Employment of Children Act was enacted to prohibit the employment of children below the age of 14 years in specified hazardous occupations. This Act specifically prohibits the employment of children below 14 years of age in the railway and other means of transport. A recent amendment been made in this regard is that children can be employed in family enterprises.
Article 15(3) of the Indian constitution enables the state to make special provisions for women and children. It contains an exception to prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, etc as contained in Article 15(1). Article 23 prohibits traffic in human beings and other forms of forced labor. It is provided in Article 24 that “no child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment”.
Apart from the fundamental rights related to children, certain directive principles in the Constitution direct the state policy and action in relation to child rights, including employment and education of children. Article 39 directs the state to so direct its policy “ that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength” and “ that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that children and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment”.
In Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India, 1997 Lab IC, 2107 the Supreme Court held that basic cause of child labor is poverty instead of total abolition shall have adverse affect and should be banned progressively in a planned manner. While exploitation of the child must be progressively banned, other simultaneously alternatives to the child should be evolved including providing education, health care, nutrient food, shelter and other means of livelihood with self-respect and dignity of person. Immediate ban of child labor would be both unrealistic and hazardous and intolerable activities like slavery, bonded labor, trafficking, prostitution, pornography and dangerous forms of labor will come into picture.
Also in the case of M.C. Mehta v. State Of Tamil Nadu And Others on 10 December, 1996 work could be taken up regarding those employment which have been mentioned in Article 24, which may be regarded as core sector, to determine which the hazardous aspect of the employment would be taken as criterion. The most hazardous employment may rank first in priority, to be followed by comparatively less hazardous and so on.
The Indian Judiciary failed to recognize the absolute rights of children all at once and choose to take by simpler path by progressively banning child labor so as not to affect the poverty of the country and stopping the menace of child labor gradually. Continuous steps are to be taken in this regard to uproot the evil of child labor as for the development of any country, children are the basic assets and their education and development should be prioritized.