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Safe childhoods for a safe India (Hindu.)

Though belated, the decision to ratify two key ILO conventions on child labour makes clear India’s intent of zero tolerance for the exploitation of children

After a long wait of almost two decades, the Government of India finally decided last week to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment.

I would like to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Ministry of Labour and Employment on the firm decision which will soon catapult India from the status of a ‘developing’ nation to a ‘developed’ one. Most of all, I would like to congratulate the children of our country. This decision will have a path-breaking impact on the lives of those who are forced to remain on the margins of society and subject to exploitative conditions. About 4.3 million children wake up to a day of labour and not school. Another 9.8 million are officially out-of-school.

Child labour perpetuates illiteracy and poverty. It is the root cause of organised crimes such as human trafficking, terror and drug mafia. However, today, I feel optimistic and am experiencing a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction similar to what I experienced in 1997.

An African epiphany

I was about 50 kilometres away from Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The place I had travelled to was a high-risk zone, particularly for foreigners and those travelling alone. I was both, but I made the journey because it was important to identify individuals and organisations to join me for a physical march that would put forth a demand for an international law to ban the worst forms of child labour.

By the time I reached the place, it was already dark and the local NGO had closed for the day. Since I was travelling with my passport and some money, I had to find shelter for the night, especially with men of dubious character stalking the area. Not left with a better alternative, I hid in a thick shade of bushes. When dawn arrived with the sound of the azan (the Muslim call for prayer), I found a way to interact with those returning from prayer. Through signs and actions, I brought them closer to the cause I worked for. A young man who understood a little English helped convey the message. After which, he very kindly dropped me back to the city.

A few months later, closer to the date of the march, I received a letter from the local NGO pledging support. They asked, “What did you do? What did you tell them?”

I learnt that after my interaction all children of the ghetto were put in school and pulled out of labour by those I conversed with. I had found the crux of the march. It was the language of compassion and humanity that would help accelerate the global movement against childhood exploitation.

The march began in January 1998. We traversed 80,000 kilometres across 103 countries and became a strong group of 7.2 million marchers. The Global March Against Child Labour, as it came to be called, culminated finally in Geneva on June 1, 1998 where the ILO conference was in session. We put forward our demand for an international convention to ban the worst forms of child labour. The voice of the marchers was heard and reflected in the draft of the ILO Convention 182.

In June 1999, delegates of the ILO unanimously adopted the convention. It was the first time that a convention or treaty had been adopted with the full support of all members. Over the years, I have spearheaded its ratification by member nations. With 180 countries having already done so, it has become the fastest-ratified convention in the history of ILO. This clearly shows that support for the movement against child labour is gaining momentum worldwide.

Clearing the hurdles

The main bottleneck in the way of India ratifying Conventions 182 and 138 was addressing forced or compulsory recruitment of children and appropriately raising the age of employment in hazardous occupations from 14 to 18 years. Consequent to the passing of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 by the Indian Parliament prohibiting the employment of children up to 14 years of age, and children up to 18 years of age in hazardous occupations, it was imperative that we ratified Conventions 182 and 138. Moreover, our failure to ratify the two conventions, which are two of the eight core labour conventions, despite being a founder-member of the ILO, reflected poorly on us as a nation.

My sense of achievement is heightened with India finally ready to join the fight it started. Our decision to ratify the convention makes our intent clear. We will not tolerate the exploitation of children any longer. As a matter of urgency, the government will take immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour: child slavery (including the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, and forced recruitment for armed conflict), child prostitution and their use in pornography, use of children for illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and exposure to any hazardous work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

An ideal law guides the way and doesn’t dictate. Under the provisions of the ILO Conventions 182 and 138, India will not adhere to a fixed deadline by which the worst forms of child labour must be eliminated. It will ultimately depend on the level of moral courage, public concern, social empathy, political will and the implementation of resources invested in the development and protection of children.

We cannot alter the circumstances overnight. To achieve great reforms, one must continue to move in a singular direction with sincerity. Our government has shown steadfastness and strong resolve to uphold the rights of our children, and so must we.

Investment in children is an investment in the future. Safe childhoods for a safe India.

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