Stolen childhood

Published : Nov 17, 2006 00:00 IST

EIGHT-YEAR-OLD MUNNA REJA with his burden of stones on the banks of the Balason river on the outskirts of Siliguri, West Bengal, on October 10. - RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/ REUTERS

EIGHT-YEAR-OLD MUNNA REJA with his burden of stones on the banks of the Balason river on the outskirts of Siliguri, West Bengal, on October 10. - RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/ REUTERS

India has the world's largest child labourer population, and ineffective laws and the absence of a multi-pronged strategy perpetuate the malady.

IT is not new for economies to use the productive labour of children. The history of capitalism is replete with such instances, especially in phases of rapid industrialisation. Dickensian stories of cheap child labour being exploited by rapacious early capitalists were some of the cultural staples of the Industrial Revolution in England. More recently, child labour has been widely associated with poverty and seen as a sign of backwardness.

Yet it is remarkably persistent and remains widespread in much of the developing world, including in the booming parts of the world economy. A 2003 survey by the International Labour Organisation suggested that there are 246 million child labourers (aged 14 years or less) in the world, and that as many as 180 million of them are engaged in hazardous activities that put them at direct physical risk. While this may be an overestimate, it should not be completely dismissed either.

Within this, it is generally accepted that India has the largest number of child labourers in the world. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are more than 35 million such children, accounting for 14 per cent of the children in the 5-14 age group. Other unofficial estimates are much higher, ranging between 60 and 125 million child labourers. Meanwhile, the Census data for 2001 suggest a much lower incidence, with 12.5 million child labourers identified, which would be less than 5 per cent of the relevant age group. This represents a declining incidence compared with the 1991 figure of 6.4 per cent of the children between 5 and14 years.

There is of course a lot of debate about these figures. Because so much of child labour is in informal activities, and is anyway a shadowy thing that very few parents or employers want to admit to allowing, there is no way of being sure of the accuracy of any calculations. The larger estimates (which are typically derived by looking at the number of children who are out of school and who are therefore assumed to be working) give a picture of an enormous national sweatshop, with production growth based on the exploitation of children. But there are reasons to be sceptical about the much larger estimates, even though it is certainly the case that those children who have never attended school or have dropped out of school are far more likely to be drawn into the work force.

For obvious reasons, this is a highly emotive issue. It can and should generate strong responses, but the high social tolerance of inequity and exclusion in India has unfortunately meant that some of the strongest responses have come from outside the country. The international community has become increasingly aware of some of the more egregious practices of child labour exploitation in certain export industries such as carpet weaving, which have led to calls for boycotts and sanctions on exports. Domestically, the response has been to cry foul and decry the protectionism inherent in this approach, which somehow implies that only the child labour in export industries should be dealt with.

In actual fact, export industries account for a very small proportion of the child labour in India, and the worst conditions are not to be found there but in other activities. In any case, urban child labour is by all accounts a very small proportion of the total, well below 10 per cent. According to both official data and most studies, nearly half the child labour in India is involved in agriculture. Most of the rest is involved in informal and service sector activities or in small home-based or cottage enterprises.

This does not mean, of course, that such children are not exploited or deprived of both their childhood and their future prospects. But the preponderance of informal activities does create real problems for dealing with this through policy and for eliminating child labour. However, there are other areas where the prevalence of child labour should be much easier to control and yet where it continues to persist.

The most appalling form of this is in the continuing prevalence of bonded child labour, which is completely illegal and yet persists in many regions and activities. There are certain industries that are known to be heavily reliant on bonded child labour and certain geographical locations that have become infamous for it as well. The fireworks producers of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, the carpet industry in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, the glass bangle makers of Jaipur in Rajasthan, the brassware industry of Uttar Pradesh and the gems industry of Mumbai have all been associated with substantial use of child labour. Other activities that have been known to use bonded child labour include knitwear- and matchstick-making units, beedi-making, tea plantations and some cultivation operations in cotton and sugarcane. Bonded and other child labour is also frequently found in services, especially in tea shops and truck shops, domestic service and commercial sex work.

Obviously, the children working in so-called debt servitude are particularly vulnerable and heavily exploited. They are often exposed to severe occupational hazards - which can lead to stunting, deformities, other health hazards and future debilities - quite apart from working long hours in dreadful conditions for appallingly low wages. There are many recorded instances of maltreatment and corporal punishment by employers. In general, the hazards that such children and other child workers in vulnerable situations face are not only physical, but also cognitive, social and emotional; and in most cases they are damaged for life as a result. There is next to no protection for such children, despite many government laws and policies.

Another important concern relates to the children of migrant workers, who are disproportionately prone to become child labourers, often in very oppressive and personally damaging circumstances. These are in addition to those bonded or "pledged" child workers who are forced to migrate without their parents, in groups organised by contractors.

The Indian government actually has a plethora of laws and specific policies to address child labour. While child labour per se is not banned in India, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 regulates the hours and conditions (but not the wages) of some child workers and bans the use of child workers in specified hazardous occupations, including fireworks and chemical industries. There are separate laws governing child labour in factories, in commercial establishments, on plantations, and in apprenticeships. There are laws governing the use of migrant labour and contract labour, which would also apply to children. For children in servitude, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, strictly outlaws all forms of debt bondage and forced labour and is an extension of a law enacted in 1933 by the British colonial government relating specifically to child bondage.

But these laws have been singularly ineffective. They have rarely been even monitored, much less enforced. A study by Human Rights Watch conducted over 1995 and 1996 in several States of India found that all of these laws were routinely flouted, with absolutely no risk of any punishment to the offender ("The small hands of slavery: Bonded child labour in India"; Human Rights Watch Asia, 1996). Many other instances of blatant violation of the laws have been documented by Neera Burra and Lakshmidhar Mishra.

Corruption is often cited as the primary cause of such brazen flouting of the law by those who exploit child labour, but generalised social apathy is also an important contributory factor. Indian society, with its still widespread concepts of birth-determined hierarchies and the guarding of privileges by the elite, has proved to be only too willing to accept certain myths that allow for the perpetuation of child labour, both bonded and "voluntary".

For example, the argument is frequently heard that much of child labour is simply an extension of the family unit, which allows a child to learn the traditional trade in comfortable circumstances and at the "right age", usually below 12 years. This notion is not only empirically questionable but also fundamentally casteist, effectively assuming that such children only deserve training according to their social and class background, rather than equal opportunities for education and advancement as all other children.

It is taken as axiomatic in most discussions on child labour that it is a direct result of poverty and that little good will come of enforcing bans unless something is first done about the income-earning opportunities of the parents. But this is far too simple an interpretation. Obviously, it is mainly the poor who are forced to make their children go to work, but it does not follow that there is a necessary causal relation in one direction.

In fact, it has been plausibly argued that child labour can actually lead to more poverty, by depressing wages in general and by forcing all family members to work at below subsistence wages to meet household survival needs. It can be shown that if the banning of child labour is effective and forces wages to go up in that area or activity, both parents and children will be better off even in income terms, not to mention overall well-being.

It is interesting to note that the four States that account for more than 40 per cent of all the officially recorded child labour in India - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu - are among the richer States in India. This suggests that low per capita income is not necessarily associated with higher incidence of child labour across the States.

Especially in societies like those in India, child labour is not only (or always even dominantly) about poverty: it is essentially about social exclusion, inequality and discrimination, which allow the relative poverty of some to be exploited in this manner. Factors such as inadequate employment opportunities for adult members of the household and lack of access to credit markets and social welfare schemes to guard against hunger or illness, all clearly play a role. But segmented labour markets result from more than these features, and are deeply embedded in social processes. Indeed, the reality of discriminatory perceptions in India is directly reflected in official inaction and implicit toleration of the widespread legal violations as well as in the indifference and even complacency of society at large.

This is not to say that there are no voices of protest or effective actions against child labour within India. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and social movements, ranging from MV Foundation in Andhra Pradesh to those fighting child bondage in particular areas across India, have shown how strategies to move children from paid or unpaid labour to school can work and how these strategies can be scaled up.

Nationally, there is no question that the most basic public intervention to eliminate child labour has got to be the provision of free, compulsory and good-quality schooling for all children. This is the most essential plank of any effective strategy. This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to ensure the adoption of a `right to education' law that ensures universal schooling without exceptions or caveats. It is also necessary to make such legislation effective in terms of allocating sufficient public resources for this and making sure that community control and adequate teacher training allow for good quality schooling for all.

Banning child labour outright certainly appears to be a laudatory goal, but in the context of the ineffective existing laws and the less-than-half-hearted implementation described above, it is not in itself likely to have much impact. This is not an argument to accept poor legal enforcement - obviously, we have to fight for more comprehensive monitoring, regulation and enforcement of laws with respect to child labour. But it is clearly the case that the elimination of child labour requires a more comprehensive and multi-pronged strategy, with universal schooling as a key element.

The experience of some other developing countries that have had some success in reducing or eliminating child labour, such as South Korea and Brazil, can be instructive.

In Brazil, in addition to a law on universal schooling, there has been a special programme - the Bolsa Escola - which provides "education grants" or school stipends based on household monthly wages, which enable poor families to send their children to school. This was accompanied by laws banning child labour and a greatly strengthened programme of labour inspections to discover and punish cases of using child labour.

Along with this, there have been strategies of using NGOs and federations of industrialists and employers to implement codes of conduct in activities that have a high incidence of child labour, such as automobile manufacturing, steel, shoes and citrus and sugar plantations. As a result of this, UNICEF has estimated that the incidence of child labour in Brazil fell by half over the decade up to 2003, even though it still accounted for 7 per cent of children in the 7-14 age group.

The recent experience of China is also interesting. China experienced a rise in child labour from the mid-1990s, to the point where the estimates of child labour ranged from 10 to 20 million for 2005. Most analysts agree that the partial dismantling of the once free and universal socialist school education system has been critical. Thus, the decline in public educational spending and the increase in school tuition fees have been important proximate causes of the increase in child labour. There have been many cited instances of parents who cannot any more afford to send their children to school without some additional income from their paid labour. It has also been noted that the system of examinations and progression through school also creates disincentives against continuation for children from poor families who perform poorly in any one year.

In addition, rapid rural-urban migration and lack of social protection to migrants have been important. It has been found in China, as in India, that the children of migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to becoming child labourers, not least because they do not have access to the urban public education system on equal terms.

The Chinese government has begun to act against the rise in child labour, particularly after some highly publicised cases of physical hazards and even death of working children in factories. There were already laws that criminalised child labour in potentially hazardous situations or in bonded form. A new law makes the hiring of a minor punishable by a fine of 5000 Yuan per worker, cumulative over the months of employment. There is some evidence that this law is actually being implemented, although with regional differences, and this has already created strong disincentives against the hiring of child labour.

It is obvious that child labour is neither socially desirable, nor is it a necessary outcome of a particular stage of development. But strategies to combat it require more than pious expressions by policy-makers. Ultimately, in India, as in other developing countries, a greater degree of public outrage and social action is required to make any counter-strategies really effective. For that, all of us as citizens are collectively responsible.

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