India’s new child labor protection act, passed last month by both houses of Parliament and signed by President Pranab Mukherjee, has officially declared a “war on children,” stated prominent social activist Ruchira Gupta.

“The act is very misleading. If you read only the first two paragraphs, which ban child labor below age 14, it seems like a good act,” Gupta – founder of the anti-trafficking organization Apne Aap and recipient of the Clinton Foundation’s Global Citizen Award in 2009 – told India-West.

But subsequent paragraphs legalize 90 percent of child labor in India by excluding children who work in family businesses, she said, adding that several child protection clauses have also been removed.

The new measure – which amends the 1986 Child Labor Act – will allow the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to claim a huge victory in combating child labor, according to Gupta. Under current law, more than 11 million children can be classified as child laborers. But the new measure will allow only 1.6 million children to be defined as workers, she said.

According to the 2011 census, there are more than 4.3 million children between the ages of five and 14 who are currently employed full-time, and another 5.8 million who work for less than six months a year, as reported by The Wire news portal.

The measure also shortens the list of hazardous occupations – as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, to which India is a signatory – to just three categories: mining, explosives, and areas defined by the Factory Act.

“Most everything children do is hazardous,” stated Gupta, adding that youth can still participate in family occupations such as tending to brick kilns, rolling beedis, working in slaughter houses, vending on the street in traffic, and back-breaking share-cropping.

The measure also fails to define the number of acceptable hours a child may be permitted to work.

Moreover, families who send their children to work in non-family-related occupations, or during school hours, can be fined Rs. 20,000 or more. Gupta said the new law targets low-income people who are already in debt bondage.

The former journalist – who won an Emmy Award in 1996 for her documentary, “The Selling of Innocents,” which tracked the trafficking of young girls from Nepal to brothels in India – claimed that the bill, known as the Child Labor Prohibition And Regulation Amendment Act, was not read by most members of the Rajya Sabha nor the Lok Sabha or even by Mukherjee before it was passed.

In the Rajya Sabha, the bill was introduced when most members were out to lunch, and “got through very swiftly and secretly,” despite concerns raised at the committee level, said Gupta.

In the Lok Sabha, 37 MPs – including Varun Gandhi, son of Union Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi – objected to the measure, but the bill was nevertheless passed by a majority. It next went to Mukherjee for signature on July 23 evening; by the next morning, the president announced the bill had been signed, said Gupta, casting doubt that the statesman had read the bill overnight.

“This was a very unscrupulous way of passing a law,” Gupta told India-West, adding: “These people are voiceless. They are considered disposable people, so the administration believes it doesn’t need to justify its actions.”

The social activist claimed that the Modi government has been very much against social sector spending. Cuts in the 2016 budget include the closure of 42,000 schools, elimination of the mid-day meal program – often the only meal a child gets each school day – and a 28 percent cut in the education budget.

A coalition of several human rights organizations and prominent social activists – including Apne Aap Women Worldwide, the Human Rights Law Network, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and MPs Sharad Yadav and Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo – held a press conference Aug. 2 to protest the passage of the measure.

“In a shameless hoax, the Act claims to have made child labor illegal under 18 and to have imposed fines up to Rs. 50,000 on employers, but in reality it has removed all age limits in the so-called ‘Family and Family-based enterprises,’” read a press release by the activists.

The amendments cannot be repealed, noted Gupta. The coalition of organizations is thus taking their concerns to the United Nations, to demonstrate that the measure contravenes the CRC.

The coalition will also file public interest litigation on behalf of 11 million children, with India’s Supreme Court. The group has also launched a social media campaign – with the hashtag #SchoolsNotWork – which aims to immediately restore the mid-day meal program, and reinstitute funds for women and education programs.

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