Editorial: Establishing Age

How many have been punished for employing minors?

When a ban was imposed in October 2006 under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, against employment of under-14 year olds in any kind of work, one expected it to clear out the grey areas that continued to put children at risk. The Act had been in place for 20 years before employment of minors even as domestic servants or helpers in restaurants and tea shops was banned. Unfortunately, the Act was never implemented in the earnest and thus one is left with a situation where even the twelve year old latest ban remains a real deterrent only on paper. While most of the focus on child labour, in Sikkim at least, has revolved around their employment as domestic servants, fact remains that many minors continue to work hazardous and much more strenuous occupations. Children who do not look more than 12 years old, and many, who appear to be borderline 14 year olds, can be seen employed at work sites, some even government sanctioned projects. The bonded-labour tendencies of the employers or their selfish intent to maximise profits by employing minors [since they can be paid less and fired at will], are not the only reasons why child labour continues to confront Sikkim at home and outside; a larger share of the blame lies with whichever authority it is that is shouldered with the responsibility to inform the people and enforce the ban. No genuine attempt has been made to educate and police against the continued abuse of the law has been taken. Had such an attempt been made, “files” would have started moving to find out on whom the onus of establishing the age of an employee rests. When it comes to children who choose a depressing workplace over school, it is too much to expect them to circulate their CVs with their birth certificates attached. It will also be impractical to expect employers to prove the lawful age of their workers. So who does it then? And how? One could theorise on this aspect here, but the best people to work out an implementable guideline would be those who have worked at enforcing the ban. Only they would know the limitations of the existing rules, provided of course, they have worked at implementing it. Children continue to fall through the gaps which can only get plugged once some hands-on experience is on call. There does not appear to be much of that available. Such a scenario decades since the Act was promulgated and then expanded is not how childhood can be saved.