In India, Hundreds March on Parliament to Demand End to Child Labor

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Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

A boy carries coal at an open cast coal field at Dhanbad district in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Sept. 20, 2012.

More than 300 citizens and representatives of national and international civil society groups walked to India’s parliament Thursday to demand an immediate halt to child labor. Their aim was to deliver a petition of one million signatures — collected via — to lawmakers, hoping to spur them into passing anti-child labor legislation that has been pending since last May. “Child slavery in India is a tragedy,” said Debra Rosen, a director at anti-slavery advocacy group Walk Free, who was among the crowd. “India’s children deserve more.”

The legislation New Delhi is currently considering would prohibit employment of children under 14 years old, outline stricter punishments for those who profit from underage labor and provide better monitoring mechanisms for suspected cases. “For every day that this bill is delayed, millions of children in India will continue to be at risk,” the petition reads.

There are currently an estimated 12 million vulnerable children in India (up from around 11.3 million in 1991). They toil everywhere from stone quarries and carpet factories to rice mills. In addition, children are bought and sold into bonded slavery for the sex trade or to work as domestic servants. “Children as young as five years old are kept from school, forced to work seven days a week for up to 18 hours a day and end up with crippling injuries, respiratory disorders and chronic pain,” the petition says.

Campaigners are demanding an end to hazardous work for those under 18 and an outright ban of employing children under 14 in accordance with the Right to Education Act (2009), which makes basic schooling a fundamental right for all Indian children between the ages six and 14. “The future of our children is at stake here,” says Global March Against Child Labor chairperson Kailash Satyarthi.

A stronger law and frequent prosecutions can act as a deterrent, the petition says. In India, according to a December 2012 U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education report, there have been just 4,000 prosecutions over the last two decades. That needs to change and soon, say activists. “Stealing children’s childhoods through harmful labor will destroy India’s future,” said Alex Wilks, campaign director at Avaaz. “Members of Parliament must stop dragging their feet and immediately pass the bill to stop all forms of child labor.”