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India has made considerable progress in curbing the economic exploitation of children over the last decade. It has introduced laws to protect children and ensure their schooling, as well as a range of social welfare schemes. Census data shows there were 4.35 million laborers aged between five and 14 in 2011 against 12.66 million a decade ago - although activists say the figures are under-reported.

A February report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) 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 are 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. Over a quarter work in manufacturing - confined to poorly lit, barely ventilated rooms in slums, embroidering clothes, weaving carpets, making matchsticks or rolling beedi cigarettes.

Children also work in restaurants and hotels, washing dishes and chopping vegetables, or in middle-class homes, cleaning and scrubbing floors. In May, Modi's cabinet approved measures to tighten a three-decade-old law which prohibits children under 14 from working in 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes including mining, cement manufacturing, gem cutting and hand-looms.

If passed by parliament, the changes will prohibit child labor in all sectors and stiffen penalties for offenders. But there are some exceptions:

Children who help their family or family businesses can work outside school hours, and those in entertainment or sports can work provided it does not affect their education.

The government said the exceptions are aimed at striking a balance between education and India's socio-economic reality.

"In a large number of families, children help their parents in their occupations like agriculture, artisanship etc, and while helping the parents, children also learn the basics of occupations," the government statement said in May.

The cabinet also approved tougher punishment of employers, with jail terms of up to two years and a fine of 50,000 rupees ($750) for a first offense. But the changes would scrap penalties for parents for first-time offences.

A labor ministry official, who declined to be named, said the reforms would promote dying traditional occupations and encourage entrepreneurship.

"Families can take help from their children in family work only after school hours," the official said.

"Allowing children to help parents in family work also provides skills development for the child and succor for the child as well as the poor parents."
 

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