On 13 May 2015, the Union Cabinet approved amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition Act of 1986. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, introduced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the Rajya Sabha in November 2012, has proposed a complete ban on the employment of children less than 14 years of age in all commercial enterprises, as opposed to only 18 hazardous industries according to the original act. However, a closer reading of the Bill reveals that children of all ages may in fact, be used for labour in some of the most hazardous industries in the country.
Unquestionably, the decision to restrict the employment of children is a sound one. According to the 2011 census, one in every hundred full-time workers in India is under the age of 14, and a third of those child workers are under the age of nine. One of the reasons cited by both the previous and present governments for the amendment is that it will plug a loophole in the act that allowed children to be employed in home-based workshops. However, these figures may still not decrease with the new bill that will be presented in parliament during the monsoon season, unless the issues raised by the Standing Committee on Labour in its report dated December 2013 are taken into consideration. Going by the response of the Ministry of Labour and Employment on 16 June 2014, a majority of these concerns went unaddressed. This leaves the provisions in their current form vulnerable to misinterpretation, a problem for which the UPA government would be to blame, given the manner in which it first framed the amendments.
The most worrying aspect of the bill is an exemption that the Cabinet has allowed for, to strike a “balance between the need for education for a child and reality of the socio-economic condition and social fabric in the country.” This exemption decrees that a child may work in family enterprises, farmlands and the audio-visual entertainment industry, barring the circus, provided the work is being done after school hours and during vacations.
This exemption is particularly contentious given that many of the industries where children are put to work, such as beedi-making, domestic work, weaving and brick-making are home-based and dependent on family labour. Beedi making is the biggest of these industries, with an estimated 90 percent of the activity taking place in the informal sector, at homes and beyond the control of government regulators. The most recent government estimate that is cited from the Ministry of Labour's 2000–2001 annual report puts the total number of workers engaged in the informal beedi industry at 4.4 million, although trade unions claim the actual figure is around 7 to 10 million workers. While there are no firm figures on how many women and children are employed in the industry, the consensus among Non-Governmental Organisations and the government is that they form the overwhelming majority of workers. A lower tax of 1.2 paise per stick on hand-made beedis versus 3 paise per stick on machine-made beedis has ensured that it will remain a cottage industry.
According to a 2013 report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), beedi production employs 21 percent of all working children. Going by the 2011 census, this would mean that close to 900,000 children under the age of 14 are working in the beedi industry. Estimates of the number of children employed in the beedi industry range from 225,000 on the low end to 1.7 million on the high end.