Child labour is a major problem in India. It is a great challenge that the country is facing. The prevalence of it is evident by the child work participation rates which are higher in India than in other developing countries. Estimates cite figures of child labour between 60 and 115 million working children in India, the highest number in the world (Human Rights Watch, 1996). It is basically rooted in poverty.
It is poverty that forces a child to earn money to support his family. Though it is prevalent in the whole of the country, the problem is acute in socio- economically weaker States like UP, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and North-Eastern States. Besides poverty, lack of education, and accessible sources of credit forces poor parents to engage their children as child labour. The big challenge for India, as a developing country is to provide nutrition, education and health care to these children.
There are more children under the age of fourteen in India than the entire population of the United States. Over 85 per cent of this child labour is in the country’s rural areas, working in agricultural activities, such as farming, livestock rearing, forestry and fisheries. This labour is outside the formal sector, and also outside industry. Moreover, nine out of ten children working children work within a family setting. During the course of working in their family setting, children also develop skills in certain traditional crafts. In this way they contribute in the capital formation of the country.
The Government of India is keen to eradicate child labour. India’s unequivocal commitment to the cause of children is well expressed in constitutional provisions, legislations, policies and programmes. The Directive Principles of State Policy and the fundamental rights find mention of their commitment of government. Besides, India is also a party to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, 1959. As a follow-up of this commitment, India adopted the National Policy on Children in 1974. India has also ratified on December 2, 1992, the Convention on the Rights of the Child which came into force in 1990. This ratification implies that India will ensure wide awareness about issues relating to children. India is also a signatory to the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.
Child labour is a great socio-economic problem. Child labour is, in fact, a source of income for poor families. Children essentially work to maintain the economic level of households, either in the form of work of wages, or help in household enterprises, or in household chores. In all the activities the basic objective is to provide the family financial support. In some cases, it has been found that a child’s income accounted for between 34 and 37 per cent of the total household income. A child labor’s income is important to the livelihood of a poor family.
No doubt it is due to the economic condition of the family that the parents are compelled to send their children to work because for most poor families in India, alternative sources of income are close to non-existent. There are no social welfare systems as those in the West, nor is there any easy access to credit facilities to the poor families.
Poverty has an obvious close relation with child labour. The population of poor people in India is very high. As per the latest report of the Planning Commission about 22 per cent people live below poverty line. It is the child labour who supplies with money, sometimes essential for the survival of the family. The combination of poverty and lack of social security network form the basis of the even harsher type of child labour-bonded child labour. It forms a vicious cycle which often results from the lack of proper credit facilities.
It is this need which provides space to the local moneylender. The high interest rates of moneylender trap the innocent child to work as bonded labour. For an average of two thousand rupees, parents exchange their child’s labour to local moneylender. Since the earnings of bonded child labourers are less than the interests on the loans, these bonded children are forced to work, while interests on their loans accumulate. A bonded child can be released only when his parents pay lump sum payment, which is extremely difficult for the poor. It is really an irony that even if bonded child labourers are released, the same condition of poverty that caused the initial debt can cause people to slip back into bondage.
Literacy is one of the major determinants of child labour. India’s state of education lacks effectiveness in yielding basic literacy to the population. It has been observed that overall condition of the education system can be powerful influence to check the spread of child labour. Sri Lanka is a brilliant example of this where compulsory education has worked to reduce child labour. The Sri Lankan Government enforced compulsory education which resulted in rising school participation rates. Naturally, the literacy rate also rises. The corresponding result was that the employment rate of children in ten to fourteen year age group showed a substantial decline. In short, the education policy immensely helped Sri Lanka to achieve high enrollment rate, high retention rate and a corresponding decline in child labour.
The strong educational base of Kerala distinguishes it from other Indian States. The Government of Kerala allocates more funds to education than any other State with a per capita expenditure of 11.5 rupees compared to the Indian average of 7.8 rupees. Moreover, Kerala spends more money on mass education than colleges and universities. Kerala emphasizes on primary education which has led to a dropout ratio of close to zero per cent. Here, child work participation rate is almost zero compared to the Indian average of 7.1%. It is important to note that Kerala Government has made no special effort to end child labour. It is the expansion of education that has done the job.
To have an effective check on the spread of child labour, India needs to improve its state of education. High illiteracy and dropout rates are reflective of the inadequacy of the educational system. Poverty plays a crucial role in the ineffectiveness of the educational system. Dropout rates are high because some parents feel that formal education is not beneficial, and children learn from skills through labour at a young age. Hence, they are forced to work to support their families. Accessibility to education is another aspect of this problem. In some areas, education is not affordable, or is found to be inadequate. With no other alternatives, children spend their time in working.
The complex issue of child labour is a developmental issue. So it cannot be eliminated by focusing on one determinant, for example, education, or forceful enforcement of child labour laws. The Government of India must ensure that the needs of the poor are fulfilled before attacking child labour. If poverty is addressed, the need for child labour will automatically decline. No matter how hard India tries, child labour always will exist until the need for it is removed. Child labour is, of course, a great hamper in the development of India as a nation. Children are growing up illiterate because they have been working when they need to attend school. Thus, a vicious cycle of poverty is formed and the need for child labour is rend generation after generation. To break this cycle, India need to strike at the root of problem-poverty, only then its fight against child labour will be successful.
All the policies and programmes of government conform to its commitment which focuses on eradication of child labour. The problem of child labour still remains despite all the attempts of the government. Enforcement is the key aspect that is lacking in the government’s effort. No enforcement data for child labour laws are available. However, this does not mean that enforcement is non-existent, or is ineffective. If child labour is to be eradicated in India, the government and those responsible for the enforcement need to do their jobs sincerely. Policies can and will be developed concerning child labour, but without enforcement they are all useless. In brief, success can be achieved only through social engineering on a major scale combined with broad-based economic growth. Only then India, which is the largest example of a nation plagued by the problem of child labour, can be free from it.