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Updated: November 24, 2011 00:29 IST

Barefoot - An unfinished agenda

  • Harsh Mander
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A national shame. Photo: M. Karunakaran
The Hindu
A national shame. Photo: M. Karunakaran

We have five million children in the labour market, say official figures. Their actual numbers may be four times as many. As a nation, we have failed each one of them…

Millions of our children still labour today, in factories, farms, kilns, mines, homes and city waste dumps, when they should be in school or in a playground. We profoundly fail these children, collectively depriving them of education, play, rest, healthy growth and childhood. Despite democracy and glittering economic growth, it is unconscionable that we continue to tolerate child work, socially and legally.

The law in India treats much of child labour as legally permissible. For children up to 14 years, only a small set of vocations designated ‘hazardous' are prohibited. Only in 2006 was employing children as domestic help declared illegal, and just five years earlier, rag-picking was prohibited among children. There are weak penalties and few prosecutions, barely a few thousand in the whole country every year. There is no prohibition of any kind of work for children who cross the age of 14 years.

Astounding numbers

Latest official estimates report around five million children economically active in the labour market, which is two per cent of the total child population of India in the age group 5–14 years. Child rights activists, however, argue that the actual numbers of child workers are much larger, because children not in school are hidden child workers, rearing younger siblings, tending the home, or helping parents earn in the fields, home-based work or vending. Their numbers are four times as many as enumerated child workers.

There are encouraging reports of growing numbers of children in school, and declining child workers during the last decade. But we need to view these figures with caution, because there is growing evidence of the informalisation of the work force with rapid economic growth. Work is often sub-contracted to home-based workers by big companies to evade labour protection regulations and responsibilities, and work is transferred also to the children working from home; as a consequence, children may be inducted into labour sometimes as early as five or six years of age. Such child labour is often invisible to the census enumerator.

Legislation has been unsuccessful in stopping child labour, even in hazardous industries. A third of all acknowledged child workers are found to be in hazardous occupations. About 53 per cent of the total number of children working in hazardous occupations is employed in the pan, bidi, and cigarette industry, in construction, and as domestic help. Seventy-two per cent recorded child workers are in agriculture and constitute almost nine per cent of all agricultural workers. These children work long hours on farms and face the harmful effects of inhaling pesticides and other chemicals. Many girls are subject to hazards of physical and sexual abuse even at a young age of 10 or 12 years at work.

The official tolerance of child labour is grounded in the belief that child labour is an inevitable product of poverty. An official committee in 1981, headed by Gurupadaswamy, declared that ‘as long as poverty continued, it would be difficult to totally eliminate child labour and hence, any attempt to abolish it through legal recourse would not be a practical proposition'. This ‘pragmatism' continues to dominate government's stand on working children.

Poverty and child labour

There remains a live and important debate about whether poverty causes child labour, or is it also the other way round. Many poverty experts argue that for poor families, sending children out to work is the only way they can survive. Many children are also engaged in unpaid household work and as a result cannot go to school: on farms, taking care of cattle, cleaning and cooking, fetching water and fuel and caring for their younger siblings. Just providing full day child-care would result in the majority of older siblings entering school for the first time. Children also drop out and work instead because schools in many states are in bad shape. Children feel demoralised and learn little in these schools, and over time refuse to attend school. If laws guaranteeing minimum wages are enforced, with greater employment security for parents, child labour would decline and cease.

Many child rights activists, on the other hand, maintain that the only chance for a child to escape the poverty of her parents is to go to school. This alone opens new avenues for a child to advance economically and socially when she grows to adulthood. Child labour causes significant life-long and irreversible psychological and physiological damage. Since children's bodies, minds and judgment are still developing, even up to their late teens, entering the world of work at a young age causes early ageing, low energy, stunted and wasted growth, occupational diseases, the crushing of spirit, and the permanent loss of the joys of carefree childhood.

‘All contemporary experience has shown that when children are withdrawn from work and sent to schools, wages for adults, both male and female work goes up substantially', Shantha Sinha, who successfully led a movement to pull 50,000 child labourers out of work and into regular school, passionately argues. ‘One of the reasons for low adult wages is because child labour is rampant, especially in the informal sector. Child labour depresses adult wages. In most countries, early child-care got strengthened and institutionalised when girls were no longer available for domestic work. In a child rights perspective, children's rights must come first, and every right attained for children has profound economic, social and even cultural impacts on the larger economy and society'.

It is true that children work because of a variety of State failures — such as to combat poverty, to implement the rights of unorganised workers, to provide social protection, to provide day child-care services, and to provide quality and relevant education in schools. But this does not justify the legalisation of child work. The State would need to take a holistic approach in eliminating child labour: enforcing legal prohibitions are imperative but admittedly not enough. Governments would need to ensure quality, relevant and non-discriminatory education, enforce labour laws, provide child-care services and social protection, and above all, battle poverty in the household to which the child belongs.

Some government officials justify child labour because this gives the country a comparative advantage in trade and exports, because of the lower prices and alleged efficiencies of employing children (the ‘nimble fingers' theory). Even these alleged economic advantages are contested. But even if there are growth dividends, there can be no ethical justification to argue that we will continue to engage children in work which damages them physically, psychologically and deprives them of their future prospects of breaking out of poverty through mainstream education, for the sake of boosting economic growth.

Not enough

Existing penalties for employing prohibited child labour is not deterrent: imprisonment for three months to two years and a fine between 10 and 20,000 rupees is a mere rap on the knuckles. These offences should be cognisable and non-bailable, with much more stringent punishments. But it is wrong to penalise or criminalise parents in any way for dealing with their difficult situations and sending their children to work. The penal provisions of the law should target only employers, and impose legal duties on governments.

Much greater sensitivity is also required in planning the rehabilitation of released child workers. Governments need to do more by way of creating mass awareness and influencing consumers. There could be campaigns to discourage people from buying products that use child labour, for instance, through certified declarations and labels. School children themselves would be most effective in a campaign against child labour, including as domestic help and in eateries.

The debate on child labour should have been settled with the Constitutional amendment recognising the right to education as a fundamental right of all children. If the law demands that a child must be in a mainstream school, she cannot simultaneously be at work. There need be no bar on children helping their families after school hours and in vacations, in fields, home-based work, forest gathering and vending, but none of this can be at the expense of schooling and the protection of the child.

Today, despite the legal right to education, many children who are the most vulnerable remain unreached by State efforts. These include children of migrant labour, children subjected to bondage and trafficking, and street children and child workers. To ensure their right to education and childhood remains a paramount unfinished agenda for freedom.


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Each and every child of the country is an asset to the nation. Investing in educating these future prospects of the nation is everyones duty. Not just the government we as responsible citizens of this country should work towards making country free of child labour and help the needy.

from:  Umesh
Posted on: Dec 27, 2011 at 01:47 IST

I have a good suggestion to prevent the child labour.If the government give assurance for children and their families to give a job if they pass 10th/12th then govt will give a minimum 4000 to 5000 rupees job then i think this policy will work and our country's poor children's future will be bright.

from:  Abhishek raghuwanshi
Posted on: Nov 26, 2011 at 02:59 IST

When my friend from Tamil Nadu has reached 9 years old, his father told him: "Now you must work." And my friend left his school, although he wanted to learn. In his family of 10 children. I think the problem of child labor that the Indians give birth to many children, but can not provide even a meal for them!

from:  Anna Russia
Posted on: Nov 22, 2011 at 23:57 IST

The article is highly informative.To prevent or address the issue of child labour,the real wages of adults must raise. Children are to be found in schools but not in labour force. Laws can't go very far when employers prefer children to adults to carry on their business and parents see the children as potential earners of money. Child labour must be declared immoral and illegal. Rehabilitation of child labourers at present is need of the hour.

from:  J.Ravindranath
Posted on: Nov 22, 2011 at 17:49 IST

The article is commendable, but equally meanigful is the photo by Karunakaran with a proper caption"National Shame". Reminds me how there appeared a photo in the Indian Express,Ahmedabad edition of a small girl performing the rope walk with a caption given"Its showtime". Such is the shameful level of intellect of our media that they cant distinguish between what is being done for bread and butter and what the fringe elements among the film fraternity do for their roti. Photos and captions given to them need to be sensitive and relevant.

from:  Sreeni Nair
Posted on: Nov 22, 2011 at 08:32 IST

No doubt that the article is commendable, but the question arises that should we always be a mute spectator on this grave issue. We the ordinary Janta should do something on personal basis. I have taught some children and felt that you have to put your hand forward to help these children. Just few minutes of your life can change someone's life for ever. This small revolution in attitude in ourselves will definitely bring the larger one. Time has come to practice rather than to preach.

from:  suraj
Posted on: Nov 21, 2011 at 20:36 IST

This is a sorry state of affairs. There can be significant improvement in child care when the majority of the well-off people realize this fact and work, along with the state, towards the eradication of child labour. Let us hope for the best for India's children.

from:  Nithya V S
Posted on: Nov 21, 2011 at 15:59 IST

thanks the Hindu for such article about child labour . in every field these future resources of the countrty are subjected to harsh and severe forms of child abuse denying them basic needs of education,health etc. mere passing if laws is not necessary but their implementation is the immediate need of the hour.

from:  zia
Posted on: Nov 21, 2011 at 14:50 IST

Salute to the author. The article sees two sides of the coin and it is absolutely practical when analyzing the solutions that one might offer to abolish child labor. If we turn the other way instead of being sensitive about the issue of child labor, our nation will forever be a developing one.

from:  Ramachandran Rajagopalan
Posted on: Nov 21, 2011 at 14:01 IST

Very comprehensive article and that which has looked at teh issue from a historical perspective. As a country we have failed children. How do we move beyond the rhetoric of policy and legislation to actually implement it and make a difference for so many children ?It used to be a sensitive issue - Child Labour. Now we are desensitized to it completely and employers including the educated middle class employ children with no fear of action against them...

from:  sudha murali
Posted on: Nov 21, 2011 at 10:25 IST

If we are really ashamed of these child labor like rampant practices in India ,take immediate step to change the social mindset and that can be done through vigorous advertising using an individual as well mass communicating all through spread out vehicles penitrating the whole of indian society simultaneously and continuously for a length of sustainable time like we did for various ailment (polio like ) eradication programme

from:  ramesh rateria
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 20:54 IST

this is very sensitive & thought provoking article on Child-Labour in India. we must avoide buying such products that uses child labour.

from:  raman singh
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 19:30 IST

I was all along thinking that there is a legal ban on employing child labor in India. No wonder then that I saw a few child laborers in a garment factory in Tirupur a few years ago. An interesting angle has been brought out by the author - "Child labour depresses adult wages". It is long overdue for a law on saving the children. Of course, another important aspect, as one writer commented here, is that such a law should be implemented strictly.

from:  D. Chandramouli
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 15:56 IST

Excellent article,highlighting Child Labour.Need of the hour is to bring an effective legislation and harsh punishment to those employing Children.''Really a National Shame,for a country which boasts of high Culture.

from:  Anil Kumar Pookot
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 13:33 IST

child labour is shameful to our nation as well as to our humanism

Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 09:39 IST

This is an indicator of failure of the programmes of the Government and
of society as an institution. A really sorry state of affairs!

from:  Neetika
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 09:08 IST

Indeed it is such sombre narration of almost unsolvable hurdle our noble nation is facing and every effort, every penny should flow into its resolution - quicker the better. Your comment that poverty results in child labour and vice versa is pretty folds up the situation - the longer the children are kept away from education and getting into the mainstream of skilled workforce, and resultant deluge in the market of cheap vulnerable child workforce, national loss in terms of debilitated future foundations is irretrievable. It is in this context, philanthropic efforts by people like Azim Premji -I mean his intention about building schools in each and every district in India - strikes a positive lining on the otherwise sable sky.

from:  G K Venkataraman
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 05:30 IST

The writer has brought up an important issue. Thanks for an excellent article.The state must make the policies more effective and ensure implementation of Right to Education. We as a society need to do more. We need NGO's and perhaps another Anna Hazare to create awareness and sensitize the society about this issue.

from:  K.Grover USA
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 02:23 IST

Do NOT allow Western ideas based on supremacy of the individual subvert the supremacy of the family as practiced in India. If an older sibling helps to raise younger ones, I don't care if the biblical cultures find it weird - our India culture appreciates it. I'm not too familiar with other communities, but the family is celebrated throughout Hindu culture. Do NOT allow lawyers and activists - trained to think like firangees - to interfere with the family in India. The Americans have destroyed their society by subverting the family, and its seniors face mass misery on an unprecedented scale. I know because I am one. India needs to stand its ground.

from:  sooku
Posted on: Nov 20, 2011 at 00:58 IST

In India, the main problem is that there will be rules, laws, and discussions on all these topics but when it comes to implement these things on ground level, most of the people who debate against all these child labor or child right violation will be ignoring even if this happens in front of there eyes as they don't want to indulge themselves directly in such causes as this will cost their time. What today India needs is active participation in eliminating such social evils rather than just taking part in debates and discussion.

from:  Pritam Kumar Deo
Posted on: Nov 19, 2011 at 23:52 IST

I am thankful to THEHINDU for this good article publication. every human should read this and try to create awareness among the poor people. Every one try to help for educating the poor children. education is the only solution to avoid the child labour.

from:  Ravi
Posted on: Nov 19, 2011 at 23:41 IST

A thought provoking article on children in India. Bouquets to Mr M karunakaran as well for The photo which speaks for itself. The government can strictly give effect to the RTE act. If that is done, there will be a big change in India. A developing country like India has to show the maximum interest in the development of children. This was highlighted by DR Amartya sen on several occasions. The future generation should not suffer.

from:  C.p.Chandra das
Posted on: Nov 19, 2011 at 22:40 IST
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