NEW DELHI - India's government moved Wednesday to toughen child labour laws in a country where millions of youngsters work long hours, often in poor conditions, but activists slammed the steps as inadequate.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet approved a ban on all children under the age of 14 from working, except if employed in family businesses or in the sports and entertainment industry.
The current law prohibits children under 14 from working only in hazardous jobs, although even this is not properly implemented, according to activists.
The government defended the decision to allow some forms of labour after school hours or during vacations saying some children needed to learn traditional skills.
"In a large number of families, children help their parents in their occupations ... and while helping parents, children also learn the basics," the government said in a statement.
The cabinet also needed to "keep in mind the country's social fabric and socio-economic conditions".
Some argue that outlawing child labour altogether is impractical in India where almost a quarter of the 1.2 billion population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.
Millions of children work as domestic servants and in factories, mines and many other areas, according to aid agencies and government figures.
Activists warned that the proposed changes could be exploited by unscrupulous employers and would be difficult to enforce in a country with a huge number of backyard industries.
"There have been many discussions around providing vocational training to children but we think that this is regressive," Sreedhar Mether, advocacy and policy manager with Save The Children, told AFP.
"Enforcement of these points is really difficult and opens the possibility of children being exploited in bangle or garment industries where work is often outsourced to home-based units," he said.
Cabinet also approved higher fines of between 20,000 rupees ($300) and 50,000 rupees and jail terms of between six months and two years for employers hiring children under 14.
The approved amendments still need to be approved by both houses of parliament.
The changes are meant to bring India's child labour law into line with its landmark Right to Education law, which was passed in 2010 and provides free, compulsory schooling to children up to 14.