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THE recently approved amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition) and Regulation Act 1986, formally enabling children under the age of 14 years to, after school hours, engage in/contribute to home-based, non-hazardous occupations have not excited expected commentary, barring from child rights activists. By making it legal for young boys and girls to contribute to household income in craft and farm-based occupations, the amendments have nullified decades of collective endeavour to give concrete substance to otherwise nebulous notions like childhood and child rights. The irony of doing this the same year that child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, should not be missed.

It is not that the earlier child rights legislation, not just banning the use of child labour but also conferring a range of positive entitlements for children – to education, nutrition, safe and caring environment and so on – was without problems. Other than the standard refrain about difficulties of enforcement, or how working children’s contribution to household income is critical for poor households, are less credible arguments about how children’s engagement in specified occupations ensures the continuity of traditions and skills. Equally common is the allegation that the discourse on child labour and child rights is much too influenced by western thinking and policy advocacy and insufficiently attentive to our local conditions and traditions. That is why, even as our laws have been changed to progressively make the hiring of child labour more difficult, the demand for ensuring relaxations for household based, family occupations continues to enjoy substantial support.

Take, for instance, the position of The Concerned for Working Children. Even as it educates and trains children to improve their skills and earning abilities, as also organize to fight for their rights as workers and citizens, the CWC remains opposed to children under 14 being legally permitted to work, even in family occupations. The current amendments to the child labour legislation obliterate the distinction between the norms we as a society agreed to adhere to and the reality as it obtains on the ground. This is but a short step towards legalizing child labour in a range of activities, so long as they are classified as non-hazardous.

Nevertheless, the question remains: How, for instance, will we now regulate children engaged in domestic work, slaving in dhabas, on looms, tailoring establishments – and this list can be expanded? All that is required is to demonstrate that the child is attending school and only contributing to a family enterprise, i.e. the labour is part of self-employment not employment.

Far more insidious are the attendant moral implications. No longer will it be socially repugnant to hire children. One many well argue, ‘So what?’ The reality is that large numbers of children work, and in a range of occupations, to ensure their own and their family’s survival. Or that a large proportion of family based enterprises might go under if labour by family members below a certain age is made illegal and they are forced to operate with hired labour. For instance, it is also well-known that far from eliminating child labour, the earlier law only helped corrupt officialdom to extract bribes from marginal, family enterprises. Thus, would it not be better to ensure that the law is in conformity with social realities, customs and traditions, instead of accepting propositions advanced by western-influenced social activists?

The tragedy is that we have gone through the same set of arguments and debates innumerable times. And while our politicians and policy-makers have, at times, promulgated laws deemed socially progressive, the social acceptance of the norms and values undergirding such reform legislation remains shaky. This is why no enlargement of social entitlements or a strengthening of rights based legislation to food, employment, health, shelter, education or childhood has enjoyed wide social approval, particularly among the elite. As also why the steady erosion of these rights and entitlements by the BJP/NDA regime in the last one year has not generated opposition, if not won approval, among the better-off.

More than the shift in social and political power since the last general election, there is possibly a deeper cultural reason for accepting these regressive actions without protest. In a chilling book, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, Harsh Mander forces us, the better off and socially privileged, to confront our deepest prejudices, often hidden behind the garb of political correctness. The emerging social compact, as the recent amendments indicate, further frees us from the need to posture or be subsumed by guilt when encountering inhuman treatment of those less fortunately placed than us. Welcome to the brave new world of market society.

Harsh Sethi