It is estimated that there are more than 10 million child workers in India and they have an opportunity to regain their lost childhood if governments across the country remain committed in enforcing the law banning employment of children in households, eating joints, teashops, hotels, catering units, hostels, clubs, spas and recreation centres. And as per the notification by the Labour Ministry, no child up to the age of 14 years can be employed at such places from October 10, 2006 onwards. Much will depend now on how the government will ensure the effective implementation of this Act as another law banning the employment of children in factories, mines and hazardous work hardly acted as a deterrent for employers.
However, more than the euphoria of the ban notification, it is the fear of the unknown which has led social activists to be alarmed that the ban, though well-meaning, could result in under-age workers getting pushed into hidden and more dangerous jobs. This is a genuine concern and how well the Centre and the State governments deal with the post-ban scenario will be the key to ensuring proper implementation of the law. It has been observed that a majority of the State governments seem unprepared to deal with the situation arising after October 10. Even the public seems to have been caught off-guard by this ban order. The central government on its part should have taken greater care to inform the public about the notification well in advance. Whether the State governments were likewise properly briefed is also questionable because a sense of confusion remains about the notification itself even among the concerned department. While the ban finally does justice to the constitutional provisions of doing away with this menace, the magnitude of the problem by itself has put doubts about whether the ban can be effectively enforced.
In all this confusion, the statement of the Prime Minister is welcome as it partially removes some of the doubts lingering about the ban order. A day ahead of the ban order coming into force, the Prime Minister has appealed to the people to abolish this practice and warned firm action against those violating the law. This statement should give enough indication that the central government is serious about the entire issue. The other concern expressed by NGOs about the future of the children released from work has also been clarified to some extent with the government making arrangements in all states to educate them under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
If the Nagaland government is serious about the ban order, the concerned department should prepare an action plan for the rehabilitation of the child labourers. Various agencies such as Labour and Social Welfare Departments, police and Railways as well as NGOs, business and market associations would have to be roped in to help in the process of detection and rehabilitation. Going by the daunting task of virtually having to uproot the economic interest of many employees, it will not be an easy assignment to carry out.
Whatever doubts or concern there may be, the ban on child labour should be seen in the context of fulfilling the constitutional mandate of the right to education and to ensure that children below the age of 14 years instead of working should be actively encouraged to join schools and in the process achieving the goal of universalizing elementary education.