India has the largest number of child laborers worldwide.
The government recently introduced a new law that it claims will go a long way to preventing child labour.
But rights activists are worried that it might just do the opposite.
Bismillah Geelani has the story.
The Ghazipur landfill site on the outskirts of Delhi is the city’s largest garbage dump.
Dozens of men, women and children with large sacks on their backs are rummaging through the heaps of waste here to find recyclable trash.
Among them is 9-year old Parul, who is helping her mother fill her sack.
“This is not an easy job. We really work hard. I help my mother in the kitchen as well. But this is our real work and we all do it including my father and brother. I also help my brother load these sacks on the bicycle,” says Parul.
A few kilometers away, in the narrow backstreets of Okhla, 12-year-old Majid ekes out a somewhat similar meager living from a garment factory.
“I get up early, take a bath and begin my work. My father and mother also work here. I don’t get enough food. I want to become a rich man; I want to buy my mother a fan so that she gets some relief from the heat in summer,” Majid tells me.
According to India’s Right to Education Act, both Parul and Majid should be in school receiving a free education and a mid-day meal.
But instead, millions of children in India are put to work, say child rights activists.
Komal Ganotra is a policy director at the NGO, Child Rights and You (CRY).
She describes the situation as a catastrophic.
“There is a whole country within this country that is engaged in child labour. The sheer number tells you what we as a country are in for. If you broaden the age group to 6-18 years, we have 33 million child labourers."
Ganotra continued, "This is a human capital, a precious resource for this country and if it goes without education you can imagine what we are heading to.”
Activists had for long pinned their hopes to the new Law for Prevention and Regulation of Child Labor to turn the situation around.
The parliament recently passed some radical amendments to the law, which the government claims would enable it to effectively eradicate all forms of child labour.
But activists like Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi are not convinced.
He’s particularly concerned about two provisions.
One that allows children to be employed in works their families also are engaged in.
Second, that trims down the list of what are known as hazardous occupations in which children under any circumstances are not allowed to work.
“There are very, very serious grey areas. We have rescued more than 3,000 child labourers below the age of 14 between 2010 and 2014 and 21 percent of those child labourers were working in the so called family enterprises, or what they call the home-based enterprises or home-based occupations,” explains Satyarthi.
He says the new law threatens to undo even the gains made through the past decade and ensures further victimization of children.
“It is modern day slavery I would say because most of these children are the victims of trafficking and bonded labour system and primarily the children are preferred to the adults because they are the cheapest source of labour."
Satyarthi went on, "They could be forced to work long hours, sometimes 18 hours a day. So it is virtual slavery. They are not working freely; it is not fun for them. It is some sort of force on them to live in those conditions.”
The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has also expressed concern about the law saying that it would make children more vulnerable and force more of them into labor.
But the government brushes aside these fears as unfounded.
Tarun Vijay is Spokesperson for the ruling, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“The best guarantee a child gets is from parents, from family. If we destroy the family in the name of some kind of regulations, we ruin the life of the child. Neither the child rights activists nor the UNICEF and nor any member of parliament or anybody else loves a child more than their parents."
According to Vijay, "This law provides a proper protection to the children, the punishment to the offenders has been doubled and the parents have been secured because they have to see that the law also creates a congenial atmosphere between the child and the parents.”
The law is now in effect.
But analysts say the law alone might not be enough to fight the scourge of child labor.