You would typically find children at this age tall and lanky. Some might look confused and listless while some others appear withdrawn in their own world and few others are curious, risk-taking and full of valour. Undeniably, almost all of them are full of aspiration and dreams.
Our society often confuses them as "adults" and expects, assigns and unfortunately pushes them in the world of work which they are not prepared for. This transition from childhood to adulthood witnesses the phase of lack of emotional and mental preparedness in the backdrop of deeply prevalent social norms.
Is it legal?
The amended Child and Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act defines this age group as "adolescents" and exempts them from the total ban. The law disallows the adolescent to work in any hazardous occupation and processes and regulates their working conditions.
By ban it means it disallows adolescents to work in i) Mines ii) Inflammable substances or explosives and iii) Hazardous processes as assigned by the Factories Act, 1948. By regulating it means hours and period of work, weekly holidays, health and safety norms etc.
This law syncs with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 which guarantees education for children under 14 years age.
How many of them and why?
Children starting work early is deeply weaved in our social fabric and a larger society is not cognisant of the various risks and vulnerabilities associated with children starting work at an early age. A large section of our population (the last estimate by Census 2011 states 22 million children) surpasses the age of their right to education and enter the world of "adult work".
Out of these working children, more than 60 per cent are in rural setting engaged in agricultural, forestry and fishing related work. These children contribute their valuable childhoods in earning money because of extreme poverty, lack of adequate and appropriate social security safety net and adult un-employment. In some cases, children also get trafficked or end up serving as "bonded labourers".
Transiting into the arena of work at an early age also predisposes these age group children to gain entry into entry level, physical work that is not preferred by other workers. This further pushes them for work, though easily available but certainly not highly promising and remunerative, not challenging the inter-generational cycle of deprivation and poverty.
Not enough ready – physically, mentally and emotionally a large percentage of them exclusively work dropping out from school while others juggle their time between education and work. Labour intensive work infers with child’s ability to learn and develop thereby. Children coupling schooling and work find it difficult to cope with studies leading to poor learning levels especially in higher grades.
With this labour defined in terms of economic production, accounting only the work in statistics and policy framework in a child’s life is restricted to only paid employment and thus discounting the invisible participation in household roles. This involves a whole range of responsibilities associated with assisting families in homes, on farms, as temporary work and "learning period" with close relative or friend.
How do we need to look at them?
The vulnerabilities of children between 15-18 years need to be looked at differentially, and importantly they need to be seen as children and not just "adults in making". The societal sanctioning and tolerance with including them into work scenarios is not only detrimental to their well being and development but also is contributing in creating a future Indian work force whose scope of diversification, growth vision remains myopic.
It is time to broaden our perspective and look at the various inter-linkages of deep rooted social evils such as child labour, child marriage, trafficking etc. It is about enabling the adult working population and increasing the household incomes. It is about taking additional steps for the most marginalised and securing their livelihoods.
It is only when society opens and provides a safety net, the children in this age group would truly be unburdened to play an "economic role" and subsequently just be children.