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India children working on the side of a road in West Bengal
India children working on the side of a road in West Bengal
Jasvinder Sehgal

JAIPUR — Saveera Khan's three daughters are helping her to make bangles, which requires working in front of a hot furnace that melts the powder used for making natural lac bangles.

The children handle many poisonous chemicals such as crystalline silica dust, and inhale noxious fumes of toxic dust. At just 7 years old, Mantasha is the youngest and she goes to school only when there isn't too much work to be done at home.

"Our only brother always goes to school, but mostly we girls in the family work at home," she says. "The furnace is very very hot and sometimes it burns us. Our eyes also hurt."

Her older sister, 12-year-old Shazia, says most of her friends also work in family businesses. "They do embroidery, cloth dyeing, gem polishing, kite and jewelry," she says. "Although many of these are dangerous for their health, their parents force them to work even if children are not interested. It has a bad impact on our education. Our money helps our family but damages our future."

The girl’s mother becomes irritated when I ask her why she lets her children work so close to the furnace.

"Mister, why are you worried about my children?" Khan asks. "These are my children and if they earn money for their family, why are you upset? I send them to school every day and they work in their free time, so what's the issue? Didn't our Prime Minister Modi use to sell tea when he was a child? Now the government is ready to relax the law, so what's your problem?"

A new amendment to India's Child Labor Prohibition Act will allow children under 14 to work in "family enterprises" like the Khan's. The Indian government argues that it will help impoverished families earn a living and give children an "entrepreneurial spirit." Making children work will only be legal if it doesn't interfere with their education and isn't hazardous.

Two steps back

Child rights activists say the government's action is regressive, reversing several decades of efforts by child welfare activists to keep children out of the work force and in school.

Vijay Goel has rescued more than 2,000 children from hazardous work environments in the last two years alone. "It will be extremely difficult to differentiate between hazardous and non-hazardous work," he says. "For example, a child is allowed to work in his ancestral agriculture farm, which is termed as non-hazardous work. But what happens if he gets injured by agricultural equipment such as axes or spades?"

But the government argues it is helping children and that the amendment reflects the reality of the country's workforce.

"Even if you take the entertainment industry, there is a lot of children under the age of 14 who have immense talent, which needs to be applauded," says Shaina NC, an India fashion designer and the spokesperson for the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party. "I think they are very clear that there are hazardous jobs for children and there are non-hazardous, which are to be monitored by the parents."

But child rights activist say that it's this monitoring that they are concerned won't happen.

Moreover, the face of child labor in India has nothing to do with child actors. It mainly affects the lowest castes, in particular Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children. They are often forced to work because their families have no alternative. These groups are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked into slavery.

Shantha Sinha, the former chair of the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, is ashamed of the amendment. "This is a very sad day for the children of our country," she says. "We thought that the amendment in the Child Labor Act would actually end child labor, but it seems that it will legalize child labor through the back door by allowing children to work at home. This kind of help, I think, is no kind of help to the family. If the children were all in school, their families would have been better off."

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