Despite a law against this abhorrent and heartless practice, and enforcement agencies to check it, child labour is an affliction Jammu and Kashmir suffers without many pangs of conscience, particularly among its civil society. The state Labour Department’s figures over the past four years make for grim reading about the government’s inability and unwillingness to root this evil out, and determine and address its causes.
Of the 3949 cases coming to the Department’s notice in 2009-10, only 5 were taken up for prosecution. In 2010-11, legal action was initiated only in 35 of the 2868 cases found that year. Similarly, in 2011-12 and 2012-13, only 13 and 22 cases were taken up from the 4331 and 3423 detected these years. From April 2013 till date, the department is understood to have identified more than 1200 cases of child labour, but only two have been brought to court.
Experts attribute poor enforcement to lack of coordination among the government departments concerned, which allows offenders to escape punishment. Even law-makers have been found to employ children in their homes as domestic helpers.
Child labour is prohibited in the state under the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act which prescribes a jail term of up to two years and a maximum fine of Rs 20,000 for anyone found employing children below the age of fourteen. A survey conducted by an NGO in 2009 found over 3 lakh under-14 children working in Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly 34 per cent of them had received schooling only up to the fifth grade, and 66 per cent up to the eighth grade.
According to the survey, 9.2 per cent of this vast workforce of tender hands was between 5 to 10 years old, while 90 per cent fell in the age group of 11 to 14. Further, 80 per cent of it came from families with 6 to 10 members and 15 percent from those with 11 to 15 members. In 61 per cent of the cases, parents of child labourers were found illiterate.
Can politicians, who are seen splurging millions today to win elections and further the benefits of democracy, spare a thought for restoring childhood to this exploited multitude and prevent the trap from closing on other children?