Even after 70 years of independence, we haven’t been able to send all our children to school. Worse still, there are crores of child labourers in India, and their number is increasing in sectors such as agriculture, mining and domestic labour. “The root causes of child labour are poverty, illiteracy, lack of quality education and resources, and poor implementation of laws,” says Neelam Makhijani, country director & CEO of ChildFund India—a child development organisation. In an interview with FE’s Vikram Chaudhary, she argues that child labour and poverty go hand in hand, and suggests some reform measures that can, over time, eradicate this social evil. Excerpts:
How many child labourers are in India?
According to 2011 Census, the number of child labourers in India between 5-14 years, of the total child population of 25.964 crore, is 43.5 lakh (main workers) and 38.7 lakh (marginal workers), which comes to a total of 82.2 lakh. The absolute number (labourers aged 5-19 years) is 3.538 crore. Although the number of working children is declining, their number is increasing in sectors such as agriculture, mining and domestic labour. As per a 2015 ILO report, children aged 15-17 years engaged in hazardous work account for 62.8% of the child workforce, 10% of whom are hired in family enterprises. Over half of working adolescents have not been to school. This is a major cause for concern.
Which states account for the maximum number of child labourers?
More than half are in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and Bihar. The biggest hub of child labour is UP—it accounts for 20% of India’s child labourers. According to a Campaign Against Child Labour study, India has 1,26,66,377 child labourers, of which UP has 19,27,997. According to a World Bank report, there are 6 crore underprivileged people in UP. Child labour plays a key role in supplementing incomes of such families. Low literacy rate in UP further makes way for child labour. India has passed a number of laws prohibiting child labour, yet we have not been able to eradicate this social evil… The root causes are poverty, illiteracy, lack of quality education and resources, and poor implementation of laws.
Poverty is a relational, relative, dynamic and multidimensional challenge. Poor kids are deprived of basic needs and are excluded on the basis of age, gender, class, caste. The lack of material and social security exposes kids to exploitation. It creates an economic need that pushes them into child labour, creating a generational cycle of poverty.
A majority of adults from marginalised communities are not educated. Their inability to avail government benefits and earning better income due to little knowledge about alternative livelihoods leaves them with the only choice of forcing their children to work.
While there are laws to protect children, implementation is poor. Even laws have gaps. There is no proper mechanism at grass-roots level to bring incidents of violence against children to the notice of relevant authorities.
So, do we need a re-look at the Child Labour Amendment Act, 2016?
Even if changes are made to this law, they will not be drastic since child labour is a big economy in India.
This law, strangely enough, permits children under 14 years to work in non-hazardous family enterprises after school hours and during vacations. What could be its long-term repercussions?
Working after school hours or during vacations affects them adversely—their energy gets channelled towards work. They miss to experience their recreational rights in the evenings and during holidays—the mental, emotional, social and physical stress affects their development, academic performance and makes them vulnerable to diseases. In fact, by involving them in work, even if it’s part-time, parents take away the opportunities children have towards changing their and their family’s life. According to ILO, there are significant economic benefits for developing nations by sending children to school instead of work. Without education, children do not gain skills such as English literacy and technical aptitude that will enable them to secure higher-skilled jobs with high wages that will lift them out of poverty.
Is it true that child labour is inevitable in India as long as households remain poor, or is the opposite true, i.e. child labour itself is a major cause of persisting poverty?
Child labour and poverty go hand in hand. Lack of social security network, effective education policy, availability of children as a cheap source of labour, unemployment, population, traditional occupations, parental attitude, inadequate wages … all lead to increase in child labour and give rise to poverty. In fact, UNICEF, in one of its reports, suggests that poverty is the biggest cause of child labour. The report also notes that in rural and impoverished parts of developing and undeveloped parts of the world, children have no real and meaningful alternative. Schools and teachers are unavailable. Child labour is the unnatural result.
What are the steps ChildFund India is taking towards eradicating child labour?
We have implemented child protection initiatives across 14 states and 2 UTs. One of our projects—DISHA—is working specifically on child labour in 34 slums of Firozabad in UP. Here, over 90% children and adolescents are engaged in hazardous home-based bangle and glass industries, deprived of their rights. Post-intervention, there has been a visible increase in the awareness level of parents and children regarding child rights. We also advocate for legislative reforms, prohibiting economic employment of a child up to the age of 14 years in all forms of work. For 15-18-year olds, work should only be permitted in a decent work environment. Our another focus is on early childhood care, to promote supportive family and community care practices, and ensure proper nutrition, healthcare and learning opportunities.