Deepak Maru, 12, was playing with his friends near his house in Manoharpur (in Mayurbhanj district, Orissa) on the Jharkhand-Orissa border when he and four of his friends were abducted and taken to Delhi by a man who identified himself as Raju. Deepak was then placed by Raju to work as domestic help for an old couple in Bhopal. Raju instructed the couple not to pay Deepak any money, and that Raju himself would return to collect the earnings. The couple ill-treated the boy and worked him hard. A neighbouring shopkeeper heard of Deepak's woes and rang the Bhopal Childline at 1098.
A Childline team came to collect the boy and produced him at the nearest police station. Then negotiations with the couple started. The process took over 20 days, and the boy declined the Rs 18,000 that the couple offered him, insisting that he just wanted to go home. Finally, a police team, along with a Childline worker, took the boy back to Manoharpur and the cash was handed over to the boy's mother, who had filed a missing person's report with the local police station.
But not every child is fortunate enough to find his or her way back. Archana Sahay, Director of the Bhopal chapter of Childline - an initiative of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to help child victims of abuse and exploitation - says that, until now, there has been no law under which Deepak could find redress.
Childline is a countrywide partnership platform bringing together the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, UNICEF, the Department of Telecommunications, street and community youth, NGOs, academic institutions, the corporate sector and concerned individuals.
A phone number - 1908 - has been dedicated as India's first 24-hour toll-free emergency phone service for children in need of aid. When they get calls on 1908, Childline volunteers immediately set out to get possession of the child, either with help from the police or without. Once they have possession, the volunteers report at the nearest police station with the child. Besides responding to the emergency needs of children, Childline also links them to services for their long-term care and rehabilitation.
Childline could not initiate proceedings against Deepak's tormentors. Although Raju, the trafficker, could have been booked under anti-trafficking laws (specifically Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code), the police did not manage to trace him.
Volunteers at Childline cite numerous other cases. In September 2006, an eight-year-old girl was rescued from a government employee's house. She had been trafficked from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. A case was registered at the police station against the employers, but went scot-free. In another case in 2004, a complaint was registered against Mini Daniel, principal of a higher secondary school, at the Aishbagh police station. She had seriously beaten and injured her 11-year-old domestic help. "In so many cases, we have wanted to take action against the employers of children in houses and dhabas, but there was nothing we could do. Even the police said there was nothing they could do because of the prevailing law," Sahay says.
The Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 prevents child labor (children under the age of 14) in factories, mines and hazardous employment, and regulates the working conditions of children in other employment. In 1993, the government also prohibited employment of children in occupations and processes like abattoirs and slaughterhouses, printing, cashew nut descaling and processing, and soldering.
However, a fresh amendment - due to come into force on October 10, 2006 - breaks new ground. The Union Ministry of Labour and Employment has declared child labour at homes, restaurants, dhabas, hotels, resorts and tea stalls as illegal, and people who engage children in such labour will face punishment. (The punishment prescribed is three months' imprisonment that could be extended up to one year, and a fine of Rs 10,000, which could be extended up to Rs 20,000; for a second offence, the punishment doubles.) All places of entertainment have also been brought under the purview of the law. Finally, the ubiquitous 'child servant' stands a chance of rescue.
"Once child labour itself is a punishable offence, even those who break the law would be careful not to indulge in cruelty at the very least," Sahay hopes.
This amendment will also strengthen Childline's efforts, she says. In Madhya Pradesh alone, Childline receives 50 to 100 cases per month of exploitation of child labour in homes. "Child labour at home and hotels is so rampant that we receive phone calls from across the state to rescue children. The incidents of mental, physical and sexual exploitation that we come across would send a shiver up anyone's spine," says Sahay.
UNICEF views the new amendment to the Child Labor Act as an important step towards protecting the fundamental rights of children in the country. "This piece of legislation is necessary - but not adequate - to ensure that these children grow up under parental care, go to school, do not go hungry, are protected from abuse and discrimination, and are able to play and enjoy their childhood and exercise their other rights," says Anil Gulati, UNICEF's Communications Officer for Madhya Pradesh.
Rakesh Singh of Bhopal-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan - working to eliminate child labor in India - also cautions that a well-intentioned amendment is not enough. He criticizes the working of government officials, who are unable to take government policies to the grassroots level. "According to the 2001 census, there are still over 1.05 million children out of school in Madhya Pradesh. Surprisingly, though, the government still uses decade-old figures, claiming that only 250,000 children are out of school (as per figures presented by state Labor Minister Jagdeesh Devda's in the July 2006 Assembly Session). The government should conduct a detailed survey of children out of school and those engaged in different kinds of labor. It should then devise a plan to rehabilitate these children in cooperation with voluntary organizations," he says.
Ironically, while the Child Labor Act now defines child labor in broader terms, the Labor Department - which is responsible for implementing the Act - faces a staff crunch. The headquarters of the department, situated at Indore, has only 200 inspectors looking after 686,294 industries, including 56 hazardous industries. The department will have to rely on NGOs to identify children engaged in prohibited forms of child labor.
"The task ahead is enormous. Indian society, civil society organizations, government and media now have a greater responsibility to work towards the rehabilitation of such children after they are rescued," says Gulati.