Kamil Zaheer, Reuters
New Delhi: Under the sweltering sun, 12-year-old Rajesh cleans steel plates at a dusty bus stand in the heart of New Delhi and hopes for a better life, a testimony to how far India has to go to curb child labour.
“This is not what I want,” said Rajesh, who works at an open-air food stall, before he quickly picked up a filthy bucket in which he washes dishes. He jumped out of the way as a bus screeched to a halt nearby.
“I want to study and go to school,” he said, starting to wash again as passengers got off the bus.
Rajesh is one of millions of poor children in India who work at street food stalls, restaurants or as domestic servants in homes, their labour mocking a government ban last year which made work for under-14s illegal and punishable by jail.
“There has been a lot of enthusiastic policy pronouncements and policy commitments made in the beginning,” said Victoria Rialp, UNICEF Child Protection Chief in India.
“But the challenge always comes in actually walking the talk,” said Rialp, adding implementation of the new ban has been very slow and had a “very bumpy start”.
Officially, India has 12.6 million child workers — the world’s highest number — but activists say the figure is at least five times more.
Last year’s ban reinforced a 1986 law that forbids children from working in high-risk industries such as matchstick-making which exposed them to hazardous fumes and chemicals.
To implement last year’s ban, authorities have launched some 39,000 inspections of possible child labour sites. They have filed just 211 prosecutions, despite detecting over 2,200 violations.
Officials say they are hindered by widespread traditional acceptance of child labour.
“The law alone cannot fight it,” said M.L. Dhar, spokesman for India’s labour ministry, adding poverty in rural areas forces many parents to send their children to work in towns and cities.
“People have to be more aware that it is wrong and illegal.”
UNICEF’s Rialp agrees.
“We have to create a critical mass of people who question the traditional practice of child labour. This is far from reached.” The federal government has to depend on local officials in states to enforce child labour laws.
Weak At Best
But data from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two populous and poor states whose combined population is around a quarter of a billion people, shows enforcement of the new ban is weak, at best.
In seven months, both states — with hundreds of thousands of children working in food stalls, restaurants and homes — have detected nearly 700 violations but filed only 20 prosecutions.
In New Delhi over the weekend, authorities rescued 93 children working as bonded labour in cramped and poorly ventilated rooms of gold and silver jewellery-making units.
The government says nearly 400,000 children have been stopped from working and “mainstreamed” into the formal education system since 1988 through special state schools that provide food, vocational training, stipends and healthcare.
But poverty keeps many like Rajesh — who earns Rs600 ($15) a month for cooking food and washing dishes — working.
“My parents are poor. That is why I am here and not in school,” said Rajesh, the white of one of his eyes red and inflamed from a splash of hot cooking oil.