NEW DELHI (AP) – A ban on child labor took effect Tuesday, but at roadside food stalls across New Delhi, many of the boys and girls who serve glasses of piping hot tea, wash dishes, mop floors and take out trash were not celebrating.

The children of India’s tens of millions of poor families are expected to work, and in many cases they are the sole breadwinners.

“As it is, I barely make enough to survive,” said 12-year-old Dinesh Kumar, who has been doing odd jobs since coming to New Delhi three years ago from a village in eastern India. “This will be a bad blow. I really don’t know what I’ll do.”

The new law bans hiring children under age 14 as servants in homes or as workers in restaurants, tea shops, hotels and spas.

Despite the subcontinent’s emerging economic power, child labor remains widespread in India. Conservative estimates place the number of children covered by the new law at 256,000. All told, an estimated 13 million children work in India, many of them in hazardous industries, such as glass making, where such labor has long been banned.

Officials say the new law will help take children out of the workplace and put them in school.

Critics counter that earlier bans in other industries had little impact – a visit to most carpet-weaving operations, for example, reveals dozens of child workers. And the new measure does little to address the poverty at the root of India’s child labor problem.

At one roadside tea shop, the Harish Dhaba, talk among the child workers focused on the hardships of the new ban.

“As long as I can remember I’ve worked in a restaurant, washing dishes, cutting vegetables, throwing out the garbage,” said Rama Chandran, a frail-looking 13-year-old as he cleared dishes from grimy wooden tables in the tiny, smoke-filled eatery.

He has been working in New Delhi for nearly four years and said the money he sends home to his widowed mother and three younger siblings in southern India is crucial to their survival.

“If I didn’t send money home, they would starve,” Chandran said.

Employers who violate the new child labor law face up to a year in prison and a fine of $217, and officials are promising strict enforcement.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said firm action would be taken against violators. “I call upon each one of you to stop employing children as workers and actively encourage children to join schools,” he said.

In some New Delhi markets on Tuesday, shopkeepers prominently displayed posters saying they didn’t use child workers. One, in the upscale Khan Market, read: “We are proud to declare we do not employ child labor.” In others, however, children could be seen working – sweeping up, selling magazines or serving tea.

Even though many here are uncertain whether the law will be enforced, Chandran’s boss has told him and the other child workers to stay away for a few days to see what happens.

Rights activists criticize the law, saying it does not address the root causes of child labor or provide any kind of safety net for children put out of work.

“The fundamental reason is abject poverty – that is the most important and fundamental issue why children are laboring,” said Rita Panicker, who heads Butterflies, a non-governmental organization that works with street children.

“Bans and prohibitions will help if you put preventive mechanisms and rehabilitation mechanisms in place,” she said. “If you don’t do either and just ban children from working … the children will be the ones who will be the victims of more oppression and exploitation.”

Poverty and the lack of alternatives for children also give cover to those who use child workers, many of whom insist they are helping by providing a job.

“I give a roof, a bed, food, clothes,” said Rakesh Sharma, a 36-year-old business executive who employs an 11-year-old girl as a maid at his home in New Delhi.

The girl, Priya, is from his home village, a few hours drive from the capital, and her family has long worked as servants for his family.

“What would the child have if there was no job for her?” he asked, adding that he sends her to school “when possible.” His own children – ages 8 and 10 – go to a prestigious private school.

Did he plan on stopping Priya from working after Tuesday?

“No decision has been taken,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.