Low prosecution, departmental gaps derail Odisha's drive against child labour
In Odisha, the last survey on child labour was done back in 1997 by the Labour department following a direction from the Supreme Court. It traced 2.15 lakh child labourers
BHUBANESWAR: THE multiple fractures and bruises on Kamala's body have healed. But the 11-year-old girl of Bhubaneswar's Nayapalli may take years to get over the trauma -- both psychological and physical -- that she endured at the hands of her employer every day for three months.
The minor was beaten with iron rods by the accused Bibhuti Patsani and his wife Sonali for every small mistake she made and sometimes, without even her having committed one. And on December 7 last year when she fell unconscious due to the assault, Bibhuti dumped her near Salia Sahi slum.
Kamala is the third among four siblings. She was brought to the Patsani household by the landlord of the house in Salia Sahi where she stayed along with her siblings and mother Pramila. An opportunity to study and food thrice a day is what she was promised for a few hours of work. But, she was never enrolled in a school and instead, the accused forced her to work for 10 to 15 hours a day.
After Pramila's husband deserted her, she has been raising her children alone by doing domestic work in houses and sometimes, by labouring at construction sites.
"The money I earn is not even enough to feed four mouths, forget their education. Our landlord told me that he would employ Kamala in a house where she would work a bit, eat and study. I knew they beat her for trivial issues but I had no inkling that the assault was so severe till she was admitted to a hospital," she said.
As Pramila cannot afford to take care of Kamala, she has been placed in a shelter home under the vigil of the child welfare committee now.
A fortnight after this incident, a 13-year-old girl Mani, who was allegedly employed as a domestic help by a banker Ashok Swain, was rescued from the city with injuries on her body and face. Like Pramila, Mani's parents, being poor labourers, had given her to Swain's father to employ her for household work for a monthly salary of Rs 1,000.
In October last year, two minor girls were rescued under similar circumstances in the city. One was employed by a retired IAS officer in IRC Village and another by a couple in Satya Vihar. The former wasn't allowed a minute of rest or even seven hours of sleep and the latter was brandished with iron rods for 'not working properly'.
The four are among the 30-odd child labourers who were rescued by Childline in Bhubaneswar in the last year. Living in abject poverty, they were pushed into labour by their kin and employed in violation of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act.
"These children were rescued because their cases were reported by neighbours or locals. In fact, aware that employment of children in various sectors has rose post-Covid, the state government has strengthened its child safety mechanism as a result of which, child labour cases are being reported round the year now," said Bhubaneswar Childline director Benudhar Senapati.
However, there are two roadblocks that the State continues to face. Despite the law, people continue to employ child labourers as it means cheap labour and with no restriction on work hours. Second, the state's low prosecution rate under Child Labour Act results in children being recycled into the labour market and remaining outside the ambit of rehabilitation.
Consider the case of Abdul.
The minor was rescued while working in a chicken centre at Chandrasekharpur in Bhubaneswar in February this year by Childline. A police case was registered against the employer and he was produced before the Child Welfare Committee which put him in an open shelter in the city. This is the second time the child was rescued. A few years back, he was found working in an eatery in the city and sent back to his parents.
"Once the child is sent back to his/her parents, chances are high that he/she will be recycled into the labour market," Senapati added.
Most importantly, the schemes meant for their rehabilitation are being implemented in a piecemeal manner as there is no information on how many children are employed in hazardous and nonhazardous sectors despite the implementation of a State Plan on Child Labour in 2018.
No official count of child labourers
In Odisha, the last survey on child labour was done back in 1997 by the Labour department following a direction from the Supreme Court. It traced 2.15 lakh child labourers of whom 121,526 were boys and 93,696 girls. The Census-2011 put the figure at a whopping 334,416.
The only data that the state government has now is the number of child labourers who were identified through a survey under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) in 2017-2018. Out of the 24 NCLP districts in Odisha, 13,620 child labourers including 9,943 boys and 6,385 girls were identified in 16 districts. The survey has been on hold ever since. Child rights activists feel the number is too less in comparison to the situation on the ground.
In fact, the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation's report on Extent of child labour and prosecution of cases under Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, in India states that Odisha is one among 10 states that has 14 per cent of total child labour population in the country.
Chairperson of the National Commission on Protection of Child Rights Priyank Kanungoo said Odisha is a state where not only the rescue of child labourers continues to be an issue but also very little is being done to prevent them from being pushed back into the labour market.
"Government schemes are based on data. And in the absence of any survey on child labour, their rescue, rehabilitation and prosecution of his/her employer becomes a patchy affair," he said.
Rescue and rehabilitation
Although child labourers are rescued by various departments and agencies, not all cases reach the police. According to the Labour department, under the Child and Adolescent Labour (P&R) Act, 1986, during the 2020-21 year 625 workplaces were inspected, 34 child labourers were rescued and 28 offenders prosecuted (fined). Similarly, in 2019-20, 2,760 sites were inspected and 149 child labourers rescued. But the prosecution number stood at just 23.
On an average, Childlines in all the 30 districts rescue around 80 to 100 child labourers every month at the district level. In Bhubaneswar alone, the Childline has rescued 32 such children in 2022-23 (till date), 12 in 2021-20, 17 children in 2020-21 and 72 in 2019-20. They are mostly rescued from houses, hotels, food kiosks and bakeries.
Nearly 1,000 children are rescued by Railway Protection Force and Government Railway Police annually from Bhubaneswar and Berhampur railway stations, which are two of the biggest source points for child labour.
However, the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) reveals that none of the above-mentioned cases have been registered under the Act. NCRB reports for five years - 2017 to 2021 – state that only six cases were filed within this period and the number of victims in these cases was nine. While these six cases were filed in 2021, no cases were filed in the preceding four years.
Zero compliance with rules
Under the Act, any person hiring a child below 14 years or an adolescent (between 14 and 18 years) for hazardous work may be jailed for a period from six months to 2 years and/or face a penalty of between Rs 20,000 and Rs 50,000. In case the child is not engaged in hazardous work, the employer can be punished with jail for up to one month and/or a fine of up to Rs 10,000.
"But with a minuscule number of child labour act violations going to the conviction stage, the existing provisions to eliminate the scourge seem to be having little impact. Since the violators have no fear of the law and they know that they can get away by paying a fine, they continue to employ children since this ensures cheap labour," said Ratnakar Sahu, a child rights activist who runs a centre Aashayein for underprivileged children in Bhubaneswar.
The situation has only worsened post-pandemic. Although there is no official survey, activists said post-Covid, there has been a rise in the movement of child labourers and migrant families with children from Western and Northern Odisha to construction sites and brick kilns in coastal parts of the state, Bhubaneswar (Khurda) in particular.
Child labour rescue and rehabilitation is a three-pronged process in the State with the involvement of Labour, School and Mass Education (SME) and Women and Child Development (WCD) departments. While the WCD is in charge of rehabilitating the children as per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, Labour looks into prosecution and implementation of the Child Labour Act while SME mainstreams such children.
However, government sources said, the biggest gray area in eradicating child labour in Odisha is the lack of convergence between these three departments in sharing the data on child labourers which derails the process of rehabilitating the children or ensuring that he/she is not recycled back into the labour market.
Sources said after the Act was amended, the responsibility of implementing it rested with the district collector instead of the local labour officer. A district-level task force was formed in every district headed by the collector which conducts a monthly meeting on the number of children rescued, employers prosecuted, and penalty collected.
When a child labourer is rescued, he/she is produced before the child welfare committee which either reunites the child with the family or sends him/her to a CCI. Subsequently, the Labour department files a case against the employer who is asked to pay a penalty of Rs 20,000 which is deposited in the Child Labour Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund chaired by the collector. The Labour department also deposits a matching grant of Rs 15,000 in the rehabilitation fund and the interest earned from this Rs 35,000 is spent on the child’s education.
"However, this is not happening. For instance, many of the district task forces are not waiting for the Labour department to file prosecution but issuing show cause to the employers and collecting the Rs 20,000 fine which is a violation of the act. Khurda task force has done this in the past. As a result of this, the rehabilitation and education are hit," said a Labour department official, requesting anonymity.
Ray of hope
Having identified these roadblocks, the three departments have recently drafted a plan under the State Plan on Child Labour where data on child labourers identified, rescued and action taken for his/her rehabilitation and against the employer will be shared. A resolution has been signed between the heads of the three departments in this regard. A website is being developed which will act as a tracking system for rescued children and share the information between the three departments so that there is coordination between them, informed a senior official of the Labour department.
Besides, Deloitte has been entrusted with the task of preparing a three-year action plan to mitigate and prevent child labour in the state.
"The Labour department is collaborating with the Skill Development of Technical Education department for the development of a course curriculum for skill development of rescued adolescent labourers," the official said.
(Names of the victims have been changed. This story has been supported by The Work: No Child's Business Alliance, run by Save the Children Netherlands, UNICEF Netherlands, and Stop Child Labour Coalition.)