SRINAGAR: J&K government’s assertion that not a single case of child labour has been detected in Kashmir in 2016-17 has more to do with the lack of proper policy than the absence of such cases.
Experts say that thousands of child labour cases are found in Kashmir, but the existing anti-child labour laws are full of loopholes. For instance, the Department of Labour considers only those cases as child labour where a child below the 18 years of age is working under an employer.
In cases where children are working in unorganized sectors like carpet weaving, pashmina shawl making, and traditional family business, or work independently to support their families, are not included in child labour category.
A huge percentage of child labour cases, experts say, have been reported from unorganized sectors like handicrafts, where children continue to work without receiving any help from government or from any of its agencies.
“All the children (below 18) who aren’t enrolled at any educational institution amount to child labour because it is the age in which they should have been studying at schools. Though no one wishes to work as labourers at such age, but it is the bleak financial conditions that forces children and parents to do so,” says Sharif Bhat, Programme Manager, Save the Children.
Sharif said that when the government says that a child working on their own will does not amount to child labour, then the claims of “no child labour” were no surprise.
Moreover, as per the anti-child labour law, officials say, they can only act against employers where children below 14 are employed. There are no regulations for those who work on their own, or on the insistence of their families. Traditional families work is not covered under the law either.
Insiders at the department say that if at all any case of child labour is traced, the department doesn’t follow the cases itself but leaves it up to the courts.
To a request for information from labour department about the cases where trial was completed and prosecution was done in the court, officials said they had no details.
The dearth of staff to monitor child labour is another challenge faced by the department. The department has 12 labour inspectors for all the ten districts of the valley which, officials say, is very little for “such tiresome work”.
A labour inspector, wishing anonymity, said that he has been assigned to overlook an entire district. “It is not possible for me to inspect each and every place in a district with other official engagements on my schedule as well. There is probability that we may miss child labour cases somewhere,” the inspector said.
Experts say, majority of children working as labourers are in sectors like handicrafts, carpet weaving, shawl weaving, agricultural activities, brick kilns and other traditional works of families.
“Rather than turning blind eye towards the existing and growing menace, government should come up with policies where root cause of the menace of child labour is addressed. Challenging employers or asking children not to work when they struggle to even manage two meals a day is not a solution. There should be a policy where these children would get handsome economic benefits besides training and basic education,” says Bhat of Save the Children.
In inspections carried out at 90 different locations across the Kashmir in 2016-17, the labour department has said that they have found not a single case of child labour.
An independent survey ‘Child labour in Jammu and Kashmir-Social, Economical and Ethical dimension’ conducted by a Prof Fayaz Ahmed Nikka, puts the figures of children in labour at a staggering 2.50 lakh in Jammu and Kashmir. The 2001 census report also points out that as many as 1,75,000 children were working as labourers in Jammu and Kashmir.
Back in 1996, a Government of India (GoI) sponsored scheme – National Child Labour Project (NCLP) – was launched with an aim to control and curb the menace of growing child labour in Jammu & Kashmir.
Under this scheme, the Labour Department was supposed to provide a monthly stipend of Rs 150 to the children besides giving them basic education and vocational training. Around 11 Child Labour special schools in areas like Parimpora, Foreshore road, Kursoo Rajbagh and Habak of Srinagar were established. Scores of children, who were earlier recovered from different workplaces, are studying in these schools.
However, the willingness of children to work as labourers limits the impact of the scheme.
“They don’t work to support their own needs but that of family. They need stipends to get rid of burden of supporting family,” said a department insider.
How serious are the efforts put in by the labour department to eradicate the menace can be gauged by the fact that not a single holistic survey has been conducted so far to ascertain the quantum of child labour in Kashmir. Moreover, there is no proper data management of cases detected during the inspection or the cases in which the department filed challans in courts.
Admitting there was a lack of comprehensive anti-child labour policy, assistant labour commissioner Srinagar, Malik Tanveer told Kashmir Reader that there are family compulsions and bleak financial conditions of families that force parents to send their children to work as labourers.
“In that context, rehabilitating the children from very poor background holds no rational arguments because, they (children) are willingly working at establishments to support their family. Ideally there should have been a mechanism where these special cases could have been identified and a handsome stipend besides education and training would be provided to them. Only then, we could succeed in our objective,” Tanveer said.
“We don’t consider that as a child labour if someone (below the fourteen years of age) works independently to earn few pennies,” he said. Asked if these cases form a huge percentage in Srinagar and elsewhere in valley, he says there are no provisions for the case like them.
“There is need to have some provisions where we could address these cases as well but then it lies with policy makers to ponder over it,” he said.
On many occasions, he says, inspectors of labour department received backlash from the employers as well as from those who employ the children because there are no laid down guidelines that gives us powers to a strong action.
“Whenever our inspection team visits any establishment where they believe child labourers are employed, to escape government action, the children deny they are working there or if at all, they are caught red handed then they show manipulated birth certificates or manage to bring birth certificates documents signed from doctors to our inspectors. That leaves our inspection teams helpless,” he says.