Child Labor in India
by Srikanth Bolla
Child maid servant, India, 2004
Photo Credit: Biswarup Ganguly
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Everywhere in rural India there are children begging in the streets; even small children are cleaning the coaches of trains and the aisles of buses, asking for coins. Being blind, I once needed help crossing a busy intersection where there were no audible signals. With my ability to see people's forms, I noticed a small boy standing there and asked him for help. The boy said that he would assist me but asked for 10 rupees in return, which is about twenty-five cents. This shocked me at first, but I paid him because I wanted to learn why he was begging. After we crossed the road, he explained that, during the day, he worked at a department store, earning 20 rupees (about half a dollar) for a twelve-hour workday. He received no food there and was beaten by his employer when he didn't work hard enough. As he was homeless, with no parents to support him, the boy stood in the busy intersection every day, before and after work, asking travelers for money so he could eat.
This boy is just one example of the over 12 million child laborers in India, according to the 2001 national census, who are exploited by industries, institutions, and landlords (Gentleman, New York Times, 2/18/2007). Male children may also become beggars like the street boy who helped me cross the road, and female children may become prostitutes to survive. In rural India child labor is seen in many areas; these children are often caught in a cycle of poverty. When they grow up, because of their own illiteracy and poverty, they may also make their children work at young ages.
Meeting this boy made me aware of child labor. What is child labor? It is important to note that not all work done by children is considered "child labor." According to the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), if children under the age of 14 do work that in some way harms or exploits them physically, mentally or morally or blocks them from education, then that work is considered child labor (UNICEF). The percentage of child laborers is greater in Asian countries than in Western countries. Additionally, child labor is much more common in developing countries than in developed countries. For example, in Asia and the Pacific over 127.3 million children under 14 are engaged in child labor as compared to the 2.5 million children ages five to seventeen engaged in child labor in developed countries (ILO, "Child Labor in Europe"). In India, the practice of child labor exists mainly because of the effects of the caste system, which prevailed in the country even before independence. Only the upper caste Indians were given the opportunity to get education, whereas the lower caste people remained poor and uneducated.
Today, however, India is one of the largest democratic countries in the world. It has declared the right to education as a fundamental right in the constitution, but nonetheless the country faces a huge problem of child labor. Though the major cause of child labor in India is, like in many other countries, poverty, other causes include overpopulation, illiteracy, and lack of awareness. Because of poverty, children are sent to work to support their families. I have seen many instances of small children in villages caring for the cows and doing other household work. Even in urban areas many children do domestic work to help support their families.
Some children are sold into bonded labor by poverty-stricken parents who receive payments from the employers of their children. Plan USA, an international development organization, features the story of a ten-year-old bonded laborer named Harisha in one village; for the last three years he had been grazing animals. Before that, he went to school. His older brother, Ananda, went to his employer every morning and was assigned work to complete by 8 PM. He had no days off and worked fourteen hours every day, for the whole year. It's been four years since Ananda left school, and he no longer remembers how to read and write. But still he loved studying. Harisha's oldest brother, Nagenda, age 17, had never attended school but was "very knowledgeable in agriculture." For his work, he received no pay, but only "three leftover meals a day and two pairs of clothes a year" ("Paying Their Parents' Debts," Plan USA).
Because Indian brides' parents have to pay dowries to the grooms' parents, Nagenda's father borrowed funds from his landlord for the marriage of his daughter. When the father needed more money, he sold both of his sons into child labor. In these rural villages, physical abuse, along with child abuse, are quite common. Ananda's feet were once tied in chains by his employer. However, he did not try to escape. Why? He replied, "If I run away, my mother or my father will force me back to harder work. If I go somewhere else to live, I will have to live as a beggar, which is even more difficult than working" ("Paying Their Parents' Debts," Plan USA).
This is the plight of millions of children in India. A debt of 1,500 Rupees (US$32) translates into one year of bonded labor. Once a poor family gets into a situation like Harisha's family, it's hard to escape.
Overpopulation and illiteracy are some of the main causes of child labor. The population of India has exceeded 1.17 billion, which has a great impact on the nation's per capita income (World Bank). Not knowing the consequences, many poor, illiterate people have many children; these children are forced to work to help support their families. Illiteracy is at the root of many problems. Parents who are uneducated tend to send their children to work instead of to study. Moreover, they may feel that primary education, which is offered for free by the government, will not be enough to earn the child a good wage. Therefore, they prefer to send their children to work at very young ages so that they can master the work by the time they become teenagers. In addition, parents with a large number of children and often other family members at home need extra income from their children to lead a normal life, having three meals every day. Thus, often parents, who want their children to go to school, must compromise because of their extreme poverty.
... in Asia and the Pacific over 127.3 million children under 14 are engaged in child labor as compared to the 2.5 million children ages five to seventeen engaged in child labor in developed countries ...
However, the situation of child laborers is far from hopeless. Srinu was born into a big family; he had two sisters and two brothers. His parents are daily wage laborers living on odd jobs who, because of their poverty, forced Srinu into child labor even though they had faith in education. Though working as a small time helper in a car shop, Srinu wanted to "become educated and live a dignified life," even while working in the car shop. Yet, in spite of dreaming of finishing school, Srinu dropped out because his family could not afford it anymore. However, by luck or by fate, Srinu was "identified and rescued by the Child Welfare and Holistic Organization for Rural Development (CHORD)," a non-profit organization identifying child laborers on site and providing food and education. After that, "Srinu never looked back on his old life." The CHORD team enabled Srinu to finish school and go on to pursue a hotel management course in a professional setting. According to the CHORD team, Srinu "stands as a role model to many a child rescued from the bondage of child labor" (CHORD).
In addition to the above causes of child labor, people are often not aware of their rights because they are illiterate and there are few proper awareness programs to educate them. According to the Government of India 2001 census, there are an estimated 12.6 million child laborers in India under the age of 14. India also has the highest number of children in hazardous work in the world. They are involved in factories manufacturing beedis (cigars), diamonds, fireworks, silk and carpets, glass, and bricks (2001 Census of India).
To reduce child labor, the government of India has implemented a number of child welfare laws. The Child Labor Prohibition and Regulation Act was enacted in 1986; the National Policy on Child Labor was introduced in 1987, rehabilitating children and giving them education, nutritious food, and vocational training with a minimum stipend for poor families. Also, the National Child Labor Project (NCLP), launched in 1988, offers these services to rural interior populations (Government of India, Ministry of Labor, National Child Labor Project).
The main focus of the National Child Labor Project is to eliminate hazardous conditions for children by providing "basic needs" (food, clothing and shelter) and education. According to the Indian Ministry of Labor, children under the age of eight have been encouraged to stay in school with the support of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Giving Education to All), a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Older child laborers are mainstreamed into schools, also with the help of this organization.
As the results of the National Child Labor Project were satisfactory, the government of India, according to India's Ministry of Human Resources, with the collaboration of the United States Department of Labor (INDUS), decided in 2000 to rehabilitate children engaged in hazardous work. Under this project, the districts served have increased from five to 21, including Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. It is estimated that about 80,000 children will benefit under this project. Also, about 10,000 families are given support services (National Child Labor Project).
Though the Indian government is working hard to eliminate the problem of child labor, it has not succeeded to the extent expected. In India, the focus must be on vocational training and teaching various necessary skills, as was the plan of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. India should forcefully implement compulsory education for the age group six to fourteen; this must be implemented on a much larger scale in every state. I don't understand why it is being ignored year after year, because it was the primary act of the constitution. I feel ashamed to say that the right to education is often ignored in India, even though it is among the six fundamental rights of the Constitution. The Mid-day Meals program, the Sectors website of the Indian Government states, which is already in progress, should be improved in such a way so that every child gets free meals in government schools in every state, not just in some. The Mid-day Meals program works to enhance enrollment and attendance in schools, while also improving nutritional levels among children. Thanks to this, poor students will at least come to school to eat, and get an education in the process. By doing this, we can eliminate a little bit of poverty and malnutrition because kids will want to go to school (Government of India).
Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, should also play a prominent role in finding child laborers and counseling them to study. People who employ child workers should be strictly punished under the Child Protection and Women and Child Development Acts, and under the Indian Constitution. Finally, print and electronic media should spread awareness of the seriousness of the problem of child labor. By fulfilling these minimum needs of poor people and children, child labor can be eliminated by 2020, which is India's vision--the vision of being a developed and healthy country.
By fulfilling these minimum needs of poor people and children, child labor can be eliminated by 2020, which is India's vision-- the vision of being a developed and healthy country.
It is not only the responsibility of the government to address the issue of child labor, but also the responsibility of every citizen of India. No one should be skeptical or hopeless about how an ordinary person can help reduce child labor. People simply have to learn about the issue, support organizations that are raising awareness, and even provide direct help to individual children. Individuals should not employ children for domestic or commercial work. Since the government is strict with child labor laws, the citizens should pass on information about child labor violations to the government.
Corporations must also take on the problem of child labor as one of their corporate social responsibility programs so that a lot more progress can be achieved. Voluntary groups from companies should focus on some of the poorer areas and take care of the education of the children in those areas. Many NGOs are already working to reduce child labor in the country. Some of the organizations to mention are: CRY (Child Relief and You), Pratham, CHORD-A, and Lead India 2020. There is a great need for these NGOs that work for the rehabilitation and education of children (CHORD, Lead India 2020, Pratham).
Several incidents, including the encounter with the boy crossing the street, have encouraged me to join Lead India 2020, the second national youth movement in India, headed by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the former president of India. The mission of this movement is to teach and train unfortunate rural children to become global leaders. As its main motto says, "Individual transformation alone leads to the transformation of the country." We aim to provide basic awareness in education, values, physical, mental and social development, along with patriotic spirit and scientific temper. This movement allowed me to interact with thousands of illiterate and abandoned children, with whom I could share my knowledge, and whom I could encourage to study and move forward. My journey from a small village in India to MIT in the USA was also influenced by the Lead India movement, which helped me become an effective leader.
When I started my research on this topic at MIT, one of the first things I heard in the news was that the government of India had passed a bill making the right to education a fundamental right. Though education was already included in the fundamental rights when the Indian constitution was framed, it was not explicitly followed due to reasons like the lack of schools and proper instruction. The government took an important step on April 1, 2010, making all the state governments responsible for implementing this bill.
If each and every citizen of India feels the responsibility to educate all the children under the age of 18, then the country will create its own place in the world.
Wasim, a child laborer, works at a tea stall in Indore, India. July 2010.
Source: Abhishek Mishra
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