Guide to Child Labor in India – Criminal Justice Resources
An estimated 158 million children are engaged in child labor worldwide, often deprived of education and other vital developmental opportunities. India is the largest example of such abuses. According to UNICEF surveys conducted between 2005 and 2008, as much as 12 percent of India’s children, ages five to 14, are involved in child labor. The Indian government reports that there are roughly 20 million child laborers in the country, while other agencies estimate numbers upwards of 50 million (Child Labor, 2008). This discrepancy points to a significant obstacle in fighting child labor in India: the difficulty of obtaining accurate data. Still, when compared with countries where accurate data is available, even the conservative estimate of the Indian government demonstrates a much higher percentage of child laborers.
Other developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia generally show rates of less than 8 percent compared to the 12 percent in India. India also has a significantly larger population than many of these countries. The 2001 Census of India listed children as main workers in all of its industrial categories, most notably Agriculture, Hunting and Forestry, Fishing, Mining and Quarrying, Manufacturing, Electricity, Gas and Water Supply, Construction, and Wholesale and Retail Trade, with almost 80 percent of the children engaged in agriculture. More than 50 percent of these child workers are concentrated in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Working towards the end of this practice in India, it is prudent to analyze the causes of, the role of education in and government policies toward child labor.
Causes of Child Labor
The primary cause of child labor is that it is a source of income for poor families. In India, this is especially true, as alternative sources of income, such as welfare or loans, are largely un-available. While this may give some economic justification to the practice, studies show that Indian children are paid less than adults for the same work, an example of the exploitive characteristics of child labor. According to a 2005 estimate by World Bank, 41 percent of India fell below the international poverty line, reduced from 60 percent in 1981. This prevalent nature of poverty in India seems to correlate directly with the widespread use of child labor. Lower caste children, especially, tend to be forced into child labor because of their family’s need for additional income. And, due to the lack of available sources of income, children are often bonded into their work. Bonded child labor is essentially the sale of a child into servitude in exchange for a loan, with the child working to pay off the debt. In 1996, as many as 15 million child workers in India were bonded to their employer, according the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project. Usually the wages of bonded children are less than the interest on the loan they are working to pay off. Essentially, the children work while interest continues to accumulate on the loan to their family, with the likelihood of the family ever having the ability to pay off the loan being virtually non-existent. And, even if bonded children are somehow released, “the same conditions of poverty that caused the initial debt can cause people to slip back into bondage” according to the International Labour Organization.
The Role of Education in Child Labor
The 2001 Census of India reported that only 60 percent of India’s 250 million children ages 5 to 14 attended educational institutions. This supports the suggestion made by many agencies, that the reported rate of child labor of 12 percent may be grossly understated. Poverty causes high dropout rates that influence these statistics; as children are forced to work instead of go to school. Still, the inadequacy of the school system itself also seems to play a significant role in causing child labor. Article 45 of the Constitution of India, added by the 86th Amendment Act in 2002, states that “The State shall endeavour to provide within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.” Still, the 2001 Census reported a literacy rate of only 65 percent, with little compulsory, or state provided, education. There is also a direct correlation with spending on primary education and child labor rates. For example, the state of Kerala spends more on education, spending almost twice as much as any other Indian state. This emphasis on primary education has lead to a negligible dropout rate and 91 percent literacy, according to the 2001 Census. As a result of its educational policies, Kerala has historically maintained a much-lower-than-average rate of child labor participation, with only 26,000 child workers in 2001. Studies have also shown that the added productive capacity of future generation, as a benefit to education versus working as a child, would greatly improve the economic condition of communities where child labor is prominent. In 2010, the Government of India passed the “Right to Education Act,” entitling all children ages six to 14 to the right of an education, in attempts to combat child labor and enrich the Indian economy.
Indian Government Policy Toward Child Labor
Article 24 of the Indian constitution states “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment.” Article 39 further stipulates “that the health and strength of workers . . . and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength.” From the get go, the Indian government has been against child labor, but unable to significantly affect or enforce their policies, due to the ubiquitous nature of the problem. For example, The Bonded Labour System Act of 1976 “frees all bonded laborers, cancels any outstanding debts against them, prohibits the creation of new bondage agreements, and orders the economic rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers by the state,” and yet child bonded labor is still actively practiced and widespread in India, enforcement being the essential part lacking in the government’s efforts. To this end, the Indian Government has begun to prosecute cases of violations of child labor laws under The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) act of 1986. According to a 2010 publication of the government’s Press Information Bureau, titled Working children in the age group of 5-14 years, nearly 15,000 cases were launched between 2007 and 2010 in 23 different states. In addition to statutory and legislative measures, the government seeks to provide universal primary education and poverty alleviation. The objective being, to create an environment where families no longer need to send their children to work or bond them into labor. The Indian Government also launched the National Child Labour Project, affecting 266 districts in 20 states with the coverage of 8710 schools. Under this project, children withdrawn from work are “admitted into the special schools where they are provided with bridging education, vocational training, stipend, health care and mainstreamed to the regular education system.” While progress has been limited, the policies of the Indian Government seek to eradicate child labor and propel the social and economic development of their country.
Child labor in India is still a far-reaching and widespread problem. The percentage of child laborers in India is much higher than that of other developing countries. Bonded labor, especially, is a symptom of the high levels of poverty in India, as well as a factor that perpetuates this poverty. Income from child labor may benefit poor families, but the practice keeps families poor and prevents children from receiving the developmental education that they are entitled to, and that would benefit the economy of these communities long-term. Furthermore, in areas where education is inadequate or unaffordable, children are simply sent to work instead of school. The Indian Government has made numerous legislations to the effect of ending child labor, but has fallen short when it comes to enforcing these policies. More recently, the government has made some progress, with prosecution for violations, increased educational spending, and rehabilitation for child workers withdrawn from work. The state of Kerala shows the potential effectiveness of a policy for compulsory education. Moving forward, the Government of India must address the root causes of the child labor problem, if it wishes to eradicate this exploitative and abusive practice from its industries. By addressing the rampant poverty its people, providing compulsory primary education and enforcing its legislated policies against child labor, the Government of India can make long awaited strides toward the end of child labor.
- UNICEF: India Statistics
- Weisbrot, Naiman, and Rudiak: Can Developing Countries Afford to Ban or Regulate Child Labor?
- Government of India: Census of India
- Human Rights Watch: Bonded Child Labor in IndiaGovernment of India: Ministry of Labour
- Government of India: National Child Labour Project
- The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility: Companies and Child Labour in India
- Government of India: Census 2001 Reference Tables
- Prep4Civils: Child Labour And Education In India: Promise And Performance