Child Labour is Being Legalised to Pursue Modi's 'Make in India' at Lower Cost

The amended law does a disservice both to the children who want to study but do not have the means, and to the state that owes its future to them.

On July 19, 2016, parliament passed the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Act. These amendments to a flawed original legislation, have made it virtually impossible to extend the right to education (RTE) to children above the age of 14.  Like its predecessor, the recently amended law does a disservice both to the children who want to study but do not have the means and to the state that owes its future to them.

During the first child labour seminar I attended in the 1990s, the attending government representative brought out reams of data on educational facilities which attempted to show that the blame for the continuation of child labour lay not on an apathetic government apparatus, but on the families who preferred to send children to work.

The argument didn’t sit well with the audience, in particular with the community mobilisers, whose knowledge of field realities was different. My restive neighbour, a scholar and activist, mumbled an insight, which has remained with me through all these years – Eklavya se darr aaj bhi lagta hai (they are still scared of Eklaya even today).

Loosely translated, she was pointing out that the powerful elite, just as it had in the past, continues to maintain the status quo by ensuring that access to learning, progress and power is limited to a chosen few.

This view has held currency for a long time and yet it does not explain the cynical passage of the carefully crafted amendments to the Child Labour Act in 2016.

These amendments have made it virtually impossible to extend the RTE to children above the age of 14. More importantly, now all children above the age of 14 can be put to work as long as they are in non-hazardous family enterprises.

Watching the Rajya Sabha members discuss the amendments prior to the inevitable passing of the Act, the similarities of it with selected passages of the Mahabharata, were hard to miss.

Member after member stood up and expressed his or her concern about the legalisation of work for some children. The idea that the state’s responsibility towards children as young as 15 years was limited to regulation of work conditions clearly made several MPs uncomfortable.

One member of the Samajwadi Party likened the Bill’s provisions to a patriarch, singling out that one child who would get all the benefits of a childhood, a well-rounded education and time for recreation, while the other would get the bare minimum of schooling and would have to combine even that with work.

His question, ‘Is this fair?’ received no response from the architects of the amendment, the Congress, who are now the opposition, or the BJP, who are now in power and piloting the same bill. While the speakers were different, the sentiments expressed were not in the recently concluded discussion in the Lok Sabha.

Connecting the dots

To understand why the Bill had to immediately become an Act, three other political developments of the past months need to be factored in. First, the upcoming unveiling of a new textile policy. Second, the human resource development ministry’s delay in sharing the T.S.R. Subramanian committee report (and its subsequent replacement  with a note prepared in house). Third, the push through of the amendments to the Child Labour Act, allowing children above the age of 14 to work.

Some time over the summer of 2016, at the usual post-cabinet briefing, the finance minister explained that a new textile policy designed to jumpstart the industry was being prepared. He pointed out that with wages for textile workers having gone up in the three major supplier nations, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, India has once again an opportunity to reclaim its lost space as a major textile supplier of the world. The textile secretary made the point that revitalisation of the sector would open up a lot of employment opportunities for women.

Textile workers in the major supplier countries are predominantly female with the majority being in the 18-25 age group. All the three major supplier countries are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organisation conventions and violations of the age norm for employment in the sector are known to happen, but are uncommon.

Studies have shown that although wages are the smallest proportion of the total cost of apparel manufacture, it is also the most squeezed. In Bangladesh and now in China, to counter the likelihood of a loss of market share, the idea of a garment village has been conceptualised.

This is planned as an area where not just a single female worker, but her entire family can live and work together. These villages are being planned away from the expensive big cities in peri-urban areas where the cost of living is less and so wages can be lowered and market share retained.

Ideas like the garment village are most likely to find space in India’s textile policy when unveiled. By itself, however, it is unlikely to be adequate to shape India’s competitive advantage.

The finance minister’s announcement about efforts to revitalise the textile sector got attention, only no one correlated it with the then ongoing saga of why was it that the HRD minister was not releasing the Subramanian committee report on a new education policy. Nor was it connected to the early drafts of the Child Labour Amendment Act, which defined the child as a person below the age of 14, thus making it possible for everyone above that age to be legally employed.

While the Subramanian committee stopped short of making a specific recommendation to extend the RTE to children above the age of 14, it certainly widened the window of opportunity for articulation of such a political demand.

Officially, the human resource ministry, has to date, not owned the Subramanian committee report or placed it on its own website. Instead, it has put up an innocuous note which has taken some aspects of the committee report and left out others. The note on the HRD ministry website about the proposed new education policy takes many elements from the report, but what it also does is narrow the window of opportunity for extending the RTE beyond 14 years of age. Most adversely affected from this will be girls.

Free secondary schooling opportunities are limited in villages and peri-urban areas. Families are reluctant to send girls far away from home to study, hence leaving them in a limbo. Thus, there exists a pool of adolescent girls with some education, aspirations for a better life and no opportunities to actualise them.

Framing the textile industry revitalisation as not just beneficial for the nation’s GDP but also as a pro-adolescent girl child initiative will make for great communications, drowning out the concerns of those who ask why educational opportunities are not being provided to adolescents.

Soon after, the Subramanian committee report was buried in a cabinet reshuffle and the minister was moved from human resource ministry to textiles, a perceived demotion, which perhaps it is not.

And in the first week of the monsoon session of the parliament, a child labour Bill, which gives some children the right to work, becomes a law, thus creating for India the competitive edge of a younger, all legal, largely female pool of available workers.

What the future holds

Possibly the earliest struggle for controlling sovereign power in which children are participants is the Mahabharata. It is an epic narrative that presents, at its most simple level, the story of a regime collapsing over two generations and being replaced by a similar, though not identical one.

The story of the shaping and reshaping of the state of Hastinapur, is told, and retold through episodes in the lives of the principal characters – five brothers, their families and those they come in contact with in their journey from childhood to adulthood. Two of the episodes are of particular interest to the inter-twined child labour and education policy dialogue that has once again been rekindled.

The story of Eklavya, a tribal child who wanted to learn archery at a formal school, but was barred by his social class and the deep seated biases and fears of the elite in the attitude of his teacher, is well known.

That the denial of the right to education was not just about an injustice done to an individual, but also a way to perpetuate the existing socio-poitical power balance, is only hinted at in most renditions of this episode of the Mahabharata. The elite determined with maintaining the status quo at any cost manifests in a later episode of the Mahabharata, the sacrifice of Abhimanyu.

Eklavya, appears fleetingly, early in the saga, in the struggle for the throne of Hastinapur. At that point the struggle to keep the throne had already led to many compromises with the value system, which had led to the establishment of that state.  Because windows were open and there was seemingly space and encouragement for all to learn, Eklavya emerged as a possible challenger to the established line of succession. That challenge was effectively neutralised and the status quo was preserved for at least one generation.

Years, indeed a generation later, with Eklavya forgotten, the threat to the powerful elite would be much greater and indeed more immediate. At that point, Abhimanyu, still a student with incomplete knowledge would be sent out to do a job for which he was clearly not ready, with the real and present danger that his future, like that of Eklavya’s a generation earlier, would be at the very least compromised. And yet, despite knowing all of this, those who controlled sovereign power would encourage the boy, Abhimanyu, to take on the responsibilities of an adult.

Abhimanyu’s sacrifice actually does what it hoped for, the status quo is maintained, the elite survives and consolidates its grip on power and for the foreseeable future assures control over the state of Hastinapur.

In the saga, as now being crafted, the Abhimanyu being readied for sacrifice is most likely to be female.

Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan is the author of Growing Up and Away, Narratives of Indian Childhoods, which examines the post independence child-state relationship, in India.