Ragpicker children rest at a yard on the outskirts of Jammu, India on Aug. 29, 2012. The Indian cabinet has cleared a proposal that makes employment of children below 14 years a cognizable offence with a maximum three years imprisonment or fine up to rupees 50,000. (Channi Anand/AP)

India’s government has proposed a ban on the employment of children younger than 14, as it tries to push more youngsters into school and address an issue that has sullied the country’s image as an emerging economic powerhouse.

The proposed amendment to India’s existing child labor laws would impose a three-year jail term and a fine of $900 for anyone who employs children younger than 14 in any work at all or uses children younger than 18 in hazardous industries.

If adopted by Parliament, the amendment, which the cabinet approved this week, would signal an end to India’s long-standing official tolerance of the inevitability of poor children being in the workforce.

Child and human rights campaigners, as well as the International Labor Organization, welcomed the move as a landmark development in India’s child labor debate, though they admitted that enforcement would be a huge challenge.

“The time is absolutely right,” said economist A.K. Shiva Kumar, a member of the influential National Advisory Council, which recommends policies for the Congress party. “They’ve really recognized that the long-term benefits of education are far more consequential than the short-term gains of child labor.”

The number of children in India’s labor force is a matter of debate. In 2001, the national census estimated there were 12 million children between 5 and 14 years old in employment, but a 2009 survey by the Statistics Ministry put the number at about 5 million.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, estimates that about 28 million Indian children younger than 14 are working, about two-thirds of them in agriculture, both on their families’ land and as hired hands for other farmers.

India’s 1986 Child Labor Act bans children under 14 from working in any hazardous industries, such as mining and chemicals, and in 2006, the law was amended to prohibit children from working as domestic servants or in roadside restaurants and tea stalls.

But until now, Indian policymakers had resisted a full ban on child labor, which they believed would harm impoverished households dependent on their children’s earnings to make ends meet or artisanal workers whose skills were passed down from parents to children.

“They really believed that poor families needed the help of children to bring in money,” Shiva Kumar said.

However, the Congress-led government has been working to increase protection for children and push more of them into school. The 2009 Right to Education act established that all children between the ages of 6 and 14 had the fundamental right to a free, government-provided education. Activists say that banning children younger than 14 from the workforce was a natural corollary.

Still, activists said, enforcing such rules would require a major political initiative, as even the existing prohibitions on child labor are widely ignored.

“I’ve seen plenty of children working in restaurants and plenty of children working in other people’s homes,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “We hear from wealthy Indians that they are providing better food and better shelter for a child who would be otherwise in a much more deprived situation, and therefore, they justify employment of a child.”

But Jose Bergua, chief of UNICEF’s child protection program in India, said the amendment would be a crucial weapon in the battle for children’s rights.

“Child labor is not going to be eradicated overnight,” he said, “but having the right law in place helps a lot.”

— Financial Times