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Social Work
One in Every 10 Workers in India is a Child
The Observance of The World Day against Child Labour on 12th June has Brought back a Host of Issues behind this Social and Economic Malady. What are we doing about Child Labourers? Will The Practice Entrench itself into Perpetuity or can it be Wiped Out?
Issue Date - 21/07/2011
Child labour - defined as work that harms, abuses and exploits a child (aged between 5-14) or deprives a child of an education - is an ugly reality of life in India as it is in many other parts of the developing world. It is usually characterised by low or no wages, long hours, dangerous and unhealthy conditions and lack of physical and social security. The other is that these children are deprived of freedom, childhood, education, fun and play, and natural development. An official Government of India report states that child labour is ‘economically unsound, psychologically disastrous and physically as well as morally dangerous and harmful… Working children are denied their right to survival and development, education, leisure and play, and adequate standard of living, opportunity for developing personality, talents, mental and physical abilities, and protection from abuse and neglect.

India has the dubious distinction of employing the largest number of child labourers in the world. There are between 60 and 115 million working children in India - the highest number in the world (Human Rights Watch 1996 ) - with a majority of them engaged in hazardous activities like working with dangerous machinery, sharp tools and loads they are not strong or mature enough to handle. Carpet making factories, glass blowing units, matchsticks and fireworks manufacturers employ child labourers in thousands. Glass and bangle making units alone are estimated to employ over 70,000 working children.

Why is child labour so prevalent in India? Poverty is the obvious reason though not the only one. According to a 2005 World Bank estimate, 41.6% of the total Indian population falls below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. Child labour is therefore looked upon as a source of income for poor families. A study conducted by the ILO Bureau of Statistics found that “Children’s work was considered essential to maintaining the economic level of households, either in the form of work for wages, of help in household enterprises or of household chores in order to free adult household members for economic activity elsewhere.” In some cases, the study found that a child’s income accounted for between 34% and 37% of the total household income.

The International Labour Organisation points to a strong correlation between income levels and child labour across countries, with poor countries registering high rates of child labour. According to government figures (Census 2001), over 53% of the child labour in India was accounted for by the five states - UP, AP, Rajasthan, MP and Bihar. Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal together had about 20% of the child labourers in India.

Another cardinal reason for child labour is the lack of access to education. In some areas, education is not affordable, or is found to be inadequate. With no other alternatives, children spend their time working. Besides poverty and lack of education, there are also other factors that indirectly promote child labour in India. These include: Parental illiteracy, social apathy, parental ignorance regarding the bad effects of child labour, exploitation of cheap and unorganised labour, family practice of teaching traditional skills to children and ineffective child labour laws in terms of implementation.

In attempting to cure this social malaise, many developed countries have stopped importing any product from the developing countries that may have used child labour as an input. But the question arises whether banning goods made up of child labour is the remedy. Trade bans on goods produced by child labour have often had the unintended effect of forcing the children into other paid work at a lower wage and a more demeaning work condition.

It has been suggested that to wean away the children from work, it will be good to provide them free education. However, there is a feasibility aspect of such a measure in terms of the cost of displacing the child labour. In the Indian context, it would cost a whopping $14.62-18.94 billion every year to eradicate actual and potential child labourers. Furthermore, besides providing free primary education, a mechanism needs to be created to attract the child to come and stay in the school. Recently, with the insertion of Article 21A in the Constitution, the State has been entrusted with the task of providing free and compulsory education to all the children in the age group of 6-14 years. In 1987, a National Policy on Child Labour was announced, which emphasised the need for strict enforcement measures in areas of high child labour concentration. In order to translate the above policy into action, the government of India initiated the National Child Labour Project Scheme in 1988 to rehabilitate the working children starting with 12 child labour endemic districts of the country.

However, the affliction has only grown deeper and has now become an inextricable part of the Indian economy. The shocking truth is that 11% of the workforce of India is engaged in child labour. That translates into one in every 10 workers in India being a child! A report by Nishit Kumar, Head, Communications and Strategic Initiatives, Childline India Foundation, states that “children under 18 account for almost 43% of India’s population or about 450 million.” Yet, in spite of the manifesto of the UPA government’s committing 9% layout of the annual Union Budget for children-related programmes, only a little more than 4% was allocated in this year’s Budget. Unless and until the yawning gap between the needs of the world’s largest children’s population and (amongst) the world’s lowest per child budget allocation is narrowed, the scourge of child labour will continue to shame India and its citizens.

Anindita Chakraborty           

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