The link between compulsory education and elimination of child labour was underscored at the time when the SSA was launched.
INSIDE a dim-lit room in a resettlement colony in New Delhi, some 50 children aged between nine and 14 are seated on the floor, each holding a notebook and a pencil. This is their classroom, a classroom without a blackboard. A few blocks away, another set of children in school uniform, residents of the same resettlement colony, are returning home carrying their schoolbags and lunch boxes. The former attend a school run by the State Labour Department for "working children" under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) while the latter go to a regular municipal school, where children of lower-income groups study. A third category of children in the national capital go to public schools, some of which have air-conditioned classrooms and school buses. These children are in a small minority.
The policy document on the rehabilitation of working children brought out by the Ministry of Labour and Employment seeks to make a distinction between `child labour' and `child work'. It quotes the M.S. Gurupadaswamy Committee Report (1979), which emphasised that in all future actions dealing with child labour, the basic difference between `child work' and `child labour' would have to be taken note of. Supporting this argument, the document quotes a well-known researcher, G.K. Lieten, whose main thesis is that in a country where a major proportion of the workforce is still employed in agriculture and related activities, children assist parents in ancillary tasks and hence, there is a need to make a clear distinction between `child labour' and `child work'.
The current understanding of the government on this subject, therefore, is not different from the Gurupadaswamy Committee's findings or from the views expressed by independent researchers. It can be construed that the government does not recognise the fact that the majority of the working children are not working out of choice; they are deprived of education and childhood.
The government's stand, as exemplified in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and several other State laws, does not advocate a complete ban on all forms of child labour. Shahid Meezan, Director of the Child Labour Division, says it is futile to get into a definitional debate.
The issue is not a definitional one, said R. Govinda, Professor of Education at the National Institute of Educational Research and Planning (NIEPA). "It is clear that if a child is not in school, then the child is a child worker or a labourer. By excluding the child from school, we are including the child in the category of child labour," he said. To prohibit child labour on the one hand and to exclude the child from school does not make any sense. Govinda was doubtful whether the goal of `Education For All' would be achieved by 2015. Even the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan's (SSA) commitment to universalise elementary education by 2010 appears impossible to attain, he said. He felt that the government's claim that 1.26 crore children were economically active was incorrect as there were some flaws in the methodology adopted to arrive at the data. The dropout rates in the upper primary stage were high and the definition of out-of-school children was also not correct, he argued. Neither is the government proactive, nor is there a clear-cut programme, according to him.
Govinda served on one of the committees of the reconstituted Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE). The committee's mandate was to draft a Right to Education Bill. He said it was surprising that despite the committee's recommendations for a strong Central Act to implement the constitutional obligation of providing free, compulsory and quality education, the government had shifted the onus to the State governments by drafting a model Bill. The committee had recommended that mere legislation was not enough; the government had to set up institutional mechanisms to enable children to realise their entitlements. A blueprint of the National Commission for Elementary Education was also prepared. The model Bill prepared by the Central government falls short of all the significant interventions suggested by the CABE committee. Govinda said: "We are talking about some 40 million children who have been incapacitated to access resources." Nowhere in the world, he said, were children treated in such a cavalier fashion by the state as in India. "The state should ideally claim guardianship of all children," he said.
Is the government in a position to take guardianship of 1.26 crore economically active children? It does not seem to be in a position even to claim moral responsibility given the present state of the mainstream government schools. Most government schools do not even have the pre-primary component built in them. By contrast (to quote "EFA Progress: Where do we Stand?" a UNESCO report of 2005), at least one year of pre-primary education is compulsory in Denmark, Israel, Latvia, Myanmar, the Netherlands, the Republic of Moldova and 10 Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Most of the pre-primary component is built through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme where the main onus of imparting education is on the already burdened and underpaid ICDS worker. According to the UNESCO report, nearly 19 countries have more than one million out-of-school primary school children, including 10 in sub-Saharan Africa and the three South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
A recent analytical report on "Elementary Education in India: Progress towards UEE", authored by a NIEPA Professor, Arun C. Mehta, made interesting observations. The report is based on a survey of around 581 districts in 29 States and Union Territories. It assessed, mainly in quantitative terms, the state of elementary education in these areas. It was found that more than half the primary schools were located beyond 10 kilometres from the block headquarters. Only 16.35 per cent of the schools in rural areas were located within a distance of 5 km from the block headquarters as compared with 71.29 per cent in urban areas. Evidently, to a great extent the distance affected the attendance of girls and enrolment in rural schools.
The report observed that nearly 30,048 primary schools were running without any building and the majority of these were in rural areas and run by the government. Irrespective of the type of school, a school imparting elementary education in 2005 had an average of 3.7 rooms and the average of all the districts under survey showed that a good number of schools were without classrooms. The strength of the teaching staff was also found to be very low; a fairly good number of schools, both in urban and rural areas, had only one teacher. Remarkably, Chandigarh had no single-teacher primary school while Delhi and Kerala had only 10 and 13 such schools, respectively, in 2005.
Something as basic as a boundary wall was missing in most government schools. Many primary schools (55.62 per cent) and upper primary (34.21 per cent) schools did not have boundary walls; the highest percentage of schools with boundary walls was in Delhi. Even drinking water was not available in all the schools. Only some 80 per cent of the government schools had some kind of drinking water facility while nearly 93 per cent of the private schools had such facilities. The report did not go into the question of the quality of water.
Gender parity in enrolment is a serious issue. According to the NIEPA report, enrolment of girls remains lower than that of boys. Not much improvement was seen in the primary and upper primary classes in 2004 and 2005. In primary classes, the share of girls' enrolment in 2005 was 47.52 per cent as compared with 47.47 per cent in the previous year. It was even less in the upper primary sections.
Even in urban areas, the enrolment in both primary and upper primary sections has not crossed the 50 per cent mark. Without bringing girls under the education system, the goal of Universal Primary Education (UPE) would not be attained in the near future, the report pointed out.
The report found that in many States, the dropout rate in Class I was found to be alarmingly high. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Chandigarh and Mizoram had a below 5 per cent dropout and repetition rate while Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya had a dropout rate of above 15 per cent for primary classes. Therefore, on the one hand, a large number of children were getting enrolled and on the other, 10 out of 100 children who enrolled dropped out from primary classes in a single year. The report has recommended serious intervention to curb the high dropout rate.
But where were these out-of-school children? Were they absorbed into the labour market or did they find their way into alternative school systems where the facilities are worse than those available in government schools?
The SSA was launched in 2001 with the objective of achieving UPE by 2007 and Universal Elementary Education (UEE) by 2010, neither of which seems to be possible given the current situation.
In 2002, the second National Commission on Labour observed in its voluminous report that child labour was largely prevalent owing to illiteracy among the poor sections and recommended that compulsory primary education, as mandated in the Constitution, be provided to children in the 6-14 age group.
That there was a link between eliminating child labour and compulsory education was underscored around the same time as the launch of the SSA.
While the government has appropriated feel-good jargon such as `convergence', little seems to be happening on the ground. It is now close to two decades since the launch of the NCLP. The main objective of the policy was to rehabilitate children who had been withdrawn from employment, thus reducing instances of child labour. There are still no clear-cut directives on rehabilitation in terms of who will bear the cost.
The project believes in the educational and economic rehabilitation of working children and that is why it has some convergence of activity with the SSA. The rehabilitation of children under the NCLP has been almost non-existent and now, with the addition of two more categories in the list of occupations in which children cannot be employed, the task has become even more difficult.