Thursday, November 10, 2011
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The landmark legislation does not specifically address child labour without which the objective of universal education will remain a mirage

Sonu does not look a day older than 12 years but on being asked, he instantly putters out his age as 16. You realise that he has been tutored to add the false years. Sonu is happy working at the dhaba which serves tea and food to nearby corporate offices at Jhandewala in New Delhi. The dhaba owner provides free food while most of the money he makes is sent back to his parents in Uttar Pradesh. The boy does not even feel like he is missing out on anything. “I am able to earn and contribute to the household. Even after studies I will be making money, so what’s wrong in starting early,” he asks.

Contradiction in law

Children like Sonu cast a doubt on the intentions with which the Right To Education (RTE) Act was enacted. Ensuring free and compulsory education to children between 6 to 14 years of age, the legislation leaves out a huge proportion of working children. In fact, while the government believes there are only 8.1 million children out of school, official figures put number of child labourers at 12.6 million thus highlighting the fact that we are deliberating underestimating the number of affected children.

While the government believes there are only 8.1 million children out of school, official figures put number of child labourers at 12.6 million thus highlighting the fact that we are deliberating underestimating the number of affected children.

Under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, only employment of child labour in hazardous occupations is a cognisable offence. Many children continue to be employed in non-hazardous occupations like agriculture and household work. Hence a vast majority of them remain out of school even though the RTE Act envisages education for each and every child.  The contradiction can be addressed only if the Child Labour Act is repealed or amended.

Sanath Kumar Sinha of Patna-based non-profit Bal Sakha points out that the issue of child labour relates more to socio-economics than the administration. “The fact that we feel it’s fine to employ a child indicates that the rot runs deeper. The economic benefit of replacing an adult worker with a child is the main reason why our society has failed to abolish it,” he says.

According to an assessment done by Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), child labourers help save their employees Rs 1.2 lakh crore every year because they are paid much less than the adult workers.

Right to education and child labour

Rakesh Senger, the convener of BBA, feels RTE Act is deficient of a child labour component. “A good intiative is that the state commission for protection of child rights (SCPCR) is the monitoring authority and highest appellate body for grievance redressal under both child labour and RTE legislations. However, only 11 states and UTs have the SCPCR in place till now. Also, in the states where the commissions are operational, the progress has been tardy,” he says. It was only after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the court that the states of Punjab, Haryana and UT Chandigarh gave undertakings that they would soon set up the SCPCRs. Social activist Hemant Goswami, who filed the petition, feels it’s unfortunate that state governments have to be forced to protect child rights. “Despite having spent crores of rupees of fund under the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan and other child welfare schemes, we have failed to provide free and compulsory education to the children. RTE Act will also dole out money and the promises will become cosmetic and defunct,” Goswami says.

In Rajasthan, though the SCPCR has been formed, it’s yet to become functional. “The state commission seems to be just an eyewash since most members are political appointees with no credible experience in the field of child welfare,” says Shiv Nayal of Jaipur-based non-profit Alarippu. Parents and employers of working children are already manipulating the present education system to hoodwink the authorities. “In many cases, when we rescue children from an industrial unit, parents produce documentary proof that their child was enrolled in a school at their native village and hence was not working. This is why the enrolment figures quoted by the government should not be trusted because the child might have enrolled, but he/she might not be attending classes,” says Senger. Under the RTE, attendance is not a compulsion for class promotion which may fuel the trend further.

In many cases, when we rescue children from an industrial unit, parents produce documentary proof that their child was enrolled in a school at their native village and hence was not working.

Educating working children

It’s not that no efforts have been made to educate working children. Under the national child labour project (NCLP), the Union government has been running schools for children who have been rescued from work in hazardous industries. However, most of these schools have turned out to be money spinning businesses without any evident change on the ground. In fact, the Bihar State Child Labour Commission called for scrapping of the scheme claiming that most of such schools in the state are being run only on paper. The problem lies both in the procedural bottlenecks and low budget allocation. “The special child labour schools are being run in collaboration with NGOs. The rescued child labourers are supposed to produce a certificate issued by the district administration from where they were rescued to get enrolled. This certificate is not provided all the time and since the NGOs have to show good results, they fudge the records or enrol students who are not really the children rescued from hazardous occupations,” Sinha explains.

The special child labour schools are being run in collaboration with NGOs. The rescued child labourers are supposed to produce a certificate issued by the district administration from where they were rescued to get enrolled. This certificate is not provided all the time and since the NGOs have to show good results, they fudge the records or enrol students who are not really the children rescued from hazardous occupations

An RTI application filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan revealed that around 5,000 children were benefited from special child labour schools in Delhi but the NGO running the schools could not provide follow up details related to any of these children. The delay in release of grants to NGOs running these child labour schools is also adding to the crisis. Besides nutritional meals and health care, a monthly cash stipend of Rs 100 per child is sanctioned under the project. Non-availability of funds results in students gradually losing interest and re-joining work. “We have examples in Rajasthan where NGOs were provided the grant after a delay of two years. How could you expect to deal with child labour in such a scenario,” Nayal asks.

Financial component of the RTE Act is also not well-defined and the Union government has started diluting some well-meaning provisions to make compliance to the legislation easy for the state governments. Nayal terms such actions as deliberate short sightedness feigned by policy makers when it comes to child welfare. “Since children don’t have voting rights, they don’t figure in the priority list of our leaders. Just like other laws related to children, RTE Act will also end up as an eyewash,” he believes.

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