Child labour at Gujarat’s construction sites: Official indifference rules as govt fails to implement labour laws

hiteshBy Counterview Desk

Gujarat is witnessing perhaps one of the highest booms in the real estate sector. Not without reason, it is also attracting a huge population from vulnerable sections to work at construction sites. Despite existing laws banning child labour in hazardous sectors, the case of a 12-year-old boy who fell victim to a major accident, suggests officials and employers remain indifferent.

This is the story of a 12-year-old boy, Hitesh Jemalbhai Machchaar, belonging to Sitavati village in Jhalod taluka of the predominantly Dahod district of Gujarat, who suffered from a major accident on July 15, 2011 at a construction site in Surat, which is the state’s second biggest city, next only to Ahmedabad. Hitesh’s parents and relatives, who are marginal farmers, migrate to Surat every year to work as construction workers.   In July 2011 Hitesh accompanied his uncle, Choklabhai, who migrated to Surat to work at as a construction worker in Surat.

On the fateful date, the contractor, Sureshbhai – finding Hitesh was without any work and was just taking care of his three-year-old cousin Sarita on the third floor of the building under construction — asked the boy to bring an iron rod from down below, as it had to be urgently placed into a column which was under construction for shading on the third floor. First Hitesh refused, but on being insisted, he quietly went down and picked up the almost 12ft rod. Accidentally, the rod hit the nearby electric line, and Hitesh was electrocuted. He was immediately hospitalized at the New Civil Hospital in Surat.

At the hospital, his statement was taken by the police of Khatodra police station. Hitesh had already suffered major burns. His right hand and figures of the left hand had to be amputated. There were also other major injuries to his body. After getting initial treatment at hospital, he was shifted to a private hospital. Currently, Hitesh’s treatment is going on in Dahod, where his family resides. As per the claim of Hitesh’s father he has spent more than Rs 1.5 lakh for the treatment alone. Hitesh’s mother has to be on his side constantly, as Hitesh is totally handicapped. He can’t do any work on his own, as his hands do not work. The family members do not have money to show him to a high specialty hospital, where he could be treated and he could start going to school again.

Despite the grievous injury, Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan (BMS), an Ahmedabad-based NGO working among migrant workers of Gujarat and was able to locate Hitesh, regrets that the boy has not been able to get any compensation from any quarter – either from the Gujarat government or the contractor, who should be responsible for violating the provisions of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, which bans employment of children below the age of 14 years in hazardous occupations, including the construction industry.

“The police took the view that the accident  happened when the child was not working, thus trying to prove that it was not a violation of the law that prohibits child labour”, says Vipul Pandya of BMS, who is fighting his case. “Later, after complaints were made to senior police officials, National Commission to the Protection of Child Labour (NCPCR), New Delhi; the Institute of Safety and Health, Gujarat State, Ahmedabad; the state labour department and the social justice, Gandhingar; and social justice and empowerment department, Gandhinagar, all that has happened so far is, state officials were asked to visit Hitesh’s home in Sitavati village in Dahod.  On visiting there, all that they did was to him a over disabilities card, which entitles him to free travel and some other facilities.”

No doubt, Hitesh’s is an extreme case, but also suggests the way the state officialdom remains indifferent to the issue related to effect a complete ban on child labour at a hazardous site. A booming real estate business in Gujarat, especially in such cities like Ahmedabad and Surat, attracts thousands of migrant workers from the state’s tribal belt to work as construction sites. Mostly seasonal migrant workers, it is not uncommon that these migrant workers bring with them not just infants but also school-going children, like Hitesh, who ultimately become child workers. While there are no exact estimates available of the number of migrants working in Gujarat’s construction sites, according to Pandya, “In our estimate, there must be around 15 lakh workers working there, 70 per cent of whom are migrants, mainly from the tribal belts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.”

Gujarat leads real estate business in India, attracts largest number of construction workers. An Assocham study says that Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are the top five states with highest share for attracting maximum outstanding investments in the real estate segment. In fact, these five states account for over 70 per cent of total outstanding investments attracted by the realty sector. That the construction industry will continue to be a major factor in Gujarat is clear also from the fact that “Gujarat had the highest share of about 41% in the new investment commitments attracted by the real estate sector across India during the last fiscal” (Assocham). Other states lagged far behind, with Maharashtra’s share being 17 per cent, Karnataka’s 10 per cent, Tamil Nadu’s 8 per cent and Uttar Pradesh’s 6 per cent.

The official failure to implement a ban on the law that prohibits child labour in hazardous industries, which include the construction sector, is particularly significant at a time when pressure is mounting on Parliament to put a blanket ban on child labour in India. A petition was recently signed by 150,000 persons demanding an immediate change in the child labour laws in order to ban child labour not just in the hazardous sector but in all sectors. Currently, dangerous work is outlawed in India — but there is no blanket ban yet on child labour under the age of 14. As a result, India accounts for some of the worst excesses in global child labour.

According to a Government of India source, Gujarat accounts for 4.86 lakh child workers, who will find their way to schools in case the Government of India’s proposal to ban the employment of children under 14 takes into affect. The amendment, which received a Cabinet nod last year, would impose a three-year jail term, and a fine of Rs 50,000, for anyone who employs children under 14, or uses children under 18 in hazardous industries. Child and human rights campaigners, as well as the International Labour Organisation, have already welcomed the move as a landmark in India’s child labour debate, though they admit that enforcement would be a huge challenge.

The number of children in India’s labour force is a matter of debate. In 2001, the national census estimated that there were 12 million children between five and 14 in employment but a 2009 survey by the ministry of statistics put the number at about 5 million. Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, estimated that about 28 million children under 14 are working, about two-thirds of them in agriculture, both on their own family’s land and as hired hands for other farmers. In Gujarat, similarly, estimates of child labour widely differ. Great majority of those identified as child workers — 4.86 lakh – work with their parents in agricultural fields. There is, however, no estimate on the number of children working in hazardous industries in Gujarat.

India’s 1986 child labour Act bans children under 14 from working in any hazardous industries, which includes construction, mining and chemicals sectors. The law was amended in 2006 to prohibit children from working as domestic servants, or in roadside restaurants and tea stalls. The 2009 Right to Education Act established that all children between the age of six and 14 had the fundamental right to a free, government-provided education. There is now a general view among child rights activists that banning children below 14 from the workforce was a natural corollary. However, they believe, it would require a huge political initiative, as the existing prohibitions on child labour in the hazardous setors have been widely ignored.

Without doubt, poverty and lack of social security are the main causes of child labour. There is a strong view among a section of economists that privatization of basic services and the neo-liberal economic policies further accelerate the process of child labour. “This adversely affects children more than any other group. Entry of multi-national corporations into industry without proper mechanisms to hold them accountable has lead to the use of child labour. Lack of quality universal education has also contributed to children dropping out of school and entering the labour force. A major concern is that the actual number of child labourers goes un-detected. Laws that are meant to protect children from hazardous labour are ineffective and not implemented correctly”, says the Construction Workers’ Federation of India.

According to the HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, which works towards the recognition, promotion and protection of rights of all children, child labour is the highest among the vulnerable sections, mainly schedules tribes, Muslims, schedule castes and OBCs. “The persistence of child labour is due to the inefficiency of the law, administrative system and because it benefits employers who can reduce general wage levels. Distinguishing between hazardous and non-hazardous employment is counter-productive to the elimination of child labour. Various growing concerns have pushed children out of school and into employment such as forced displacement due to development projects, special economic zones, loss of jobs of parents in a slowdown, farmers’ suicide, armed conflict and high costs of health care”, it adds.

In 1996, the Supreme Court of India directed the Union and State governments to indentify all child labourers working in hazardous processes and occupation withdraw them from work and provide them with quality education. Employers engaging children in hazardous industries are required to pay Rs 20,000 to a child labour welfare-cum-rehabilitation Fund for each child worker found employed. The State governments are required to provide employment to an adult member of the child labourer’s failing which it must contribute Rs 5,000 to the welfare fund. In spite of this judgment and the Government of India policy on this, the problem of child labour not reduced.

— Rajiv Shah

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