Shyam Maharjan was 12 when he was taken away from his job as a khalasi with a Vikram tempo as part of a campaign by NGOs, employers, the police and the Labour Ministry to rescue children from hazardous work. Today, Shyam is 15 and back to clinging to a tempo for a living.
It is examples like Shyam\'s that make government officials reluctant to talk about the 1996 Rawalpindi Declaration that binds the seven South Asian countries to abolishing child labour in forced or hazardous conditions by 2000 (and to eliminate child labour itself by 2010).
A 1998 study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Tribhuvan University (TU) estimated that there are approximately 2.6 million working children in Nepal. This means that four in every 10 children between the ages of 5 and 14 are employed. The proportion of working girls is higher than that of boys-for every 80 boys working, there are 100 girls.
Appalling figures these, but agencies involved with child rights admit that Nepal has made some progress in the last one decade. "Child labour used to be treated as a non-agenda, today it is considered to be one of the most serious social problems," says Gauri Pradhan of Child Labour in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN).
An evaluation team of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which visited Kathmandu in January this year also agreed that Nepal\'s performance in eliminating the worst forms of child labour "satisfactory". "There is tremendous goodwill and determination in both the government and non-government sector to eliminate hazardous child labour in Nepal," says Leyla Tegmo-Reddy of ILO.
ILO has selected Nepal from among the Asian countries to be developed as a model nation towards the elimination of worst forms of child labour by 2005, and a master plan to attain that goal is in the process of being drawn up.
The government, NGOs and donor agencies say they have managed to reach an understanding in working together towards the progressive elimination of child labour. They consider increased awareness and success in removing children from organised sectors like carpet-weaving and tea estates to be highlights of what they have been able to achieve working in tandem.
The policies against child labour are more or less in place. The 1990 Constitution of Nepal clearly prohibits employment of a child under 14. Those above 14 can be employed with the consent of their parents but not in industries, mines or at hazardous works. The Labour Act 1992 and the Children\'s Act 1992 also prohibit minors from working in industries, mines and hazardous works (the last is not clearly defined but the proposed Child Labour Act attempts to do so).
However, the definition of "minors\' is not clear-the Labour Act considers those between 14 to 18 as minors, while the Children\'s Act 1992 says it is children from 14 to 16. Both Acts limit the working hours for minors to only six hours a day, entitle them to equal pay for equal work at par with the adults, and grant them regular weekly days off. The Acts also prohibit children\'s engagement in works that are likely to harm their physical and mental health and development.
Activists and government officials alike agree that it is not lack of policy that is the problem. "It is due to implementation weaknesses," confesses Dev Ratna Tamrakar, who heads the unit responsible to deal with child labour problems at the Labour Ministry. He pointed out lack of funds, shortage of human resources, overload of work and lack of incentives to government workers and incapability of NGOs as the reasons why implementation is not working.
But CWIN\'s Pradhan blames the "systemless system in the bureaucracy" and a lack of a clear definition of roles and duties the government agencies and NGOs are hampering the attempts to eliminate child labour. "When a situation arises there is no one from the government to shoulder the responsibility." he argues.
At the same time, all agree that a major stumbling block to ending child labour is that awareness is still limited to the policy-making level only. The message has not reached the target group. This explains why children who earlier worked in the organised sector like big carpet factories shifted elsewhere after the carpet factories came under stricter vigilance.
"The key lies in compulsory and free education. Not all the children are working because they are very poor. Parents should be made aware of the link between education and a safe future for children," says Keshav Koirala at the Ministry. That should encourage parents into getting their children educated than sending them into the labour market early, he says.
But attitudes are hard to change. Even as he disputes that his life is in constant danger as he collects fares in the moving vehicle, tempo-khalasi Shyam nonchalantly says: "Smoke-belching Vikrams could have affected my health, the gas tempo I am working with now is safe."