By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The number of child laborers aged 14 or below in India dropped to 4.5 million in 2011 from 12.6 million a decade before, said the country's labor minister, urging lawmakers to approve planned changes to existing legislation to curb the problem.
Labor Minister Bandaru Dattatreya told India's lower house of parliament on Monday the government will amend a three-decade-old child labor prohibition law, and called on both houses of parliament to support its passage.
"I gave a notice in the winter session, but it could not be passed. This session too, it could not be passed though I gave notice," Dattatreya said.
The amendments to the current law are scheduled to be presented during this session of parliament which ends on May 8, with a recess between March 21 and April 19.
Dattatreya's figure, which is from India's 2011 census, shows the number of child workers dropped by 64 percent over 10 years.
A February 2015 report by the International Labor Organization puts the number of child workers in India aged between five and 17 at 5.7 million, out of 168 million globally.
More than half work in agriculture, toiling in cotton, sugarcane and rice paddy fields where they are often exposed to pesticides and risk injury from sharp tools and heavy equipment.
At least a quarter work in manufacturing - often confined to poorly lit, barely ventilated rooms, embroidering clothes, weaving carpets, making matchsticks or rolling beedi cigarettes. Many help their parents in brick kilns or mines.
Children also work in the services sector - in shops, restaurants and hotels, washing dishes and chopping vegetables, or in middle-class homes, cleaning and looking after younger children.
The government wants to change the current law, which bans children under 14 from working in only 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes, such as mining, gem cutting and cement manufacturing.
If passed by parliament, the changes will outlaw child labor below 14 in all sectors and include a new category for those aged between 15 and 18 years old.
The amendments also double jail time for employing children to a maximum of two years and increase the fine up to 50,000 rupees ($745) from 20,000 rupees ($300) currently.
But child rights activists, including Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, have voiced concern over two exceptions.
Children who help their family in family businesses can work outside school hours and holidays, and those in entertainment or sports can work provided it does not affect their education.
Also, children aged 15 to 18 will be barred from working in only three industries - mines, inflammable substances and hazardous processes.
Satyarthi, whose charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan is credited with rescuing more than 80,000 enslaved children, said the exemptions are "regressive" and wants a total ban on all forms of child labor.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)