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PE02043A.gif (1873 bytes)Child Labour in India: Causes, Governmental Policies and the role of Education

By Dr. Mitesh V. Badiwala, M.D.


The complex issue of child labour is a developmental issue worth investigating. The notion that children are being exploited and forced into labour, while not receiving education crucial to development, concerns many people. India is the largest example of a nation plagued by the problem of child labour. Estimates cite figures of between 60 and 115 million working children in India -- the highest number in the world (Human Rights Watch 1996, 1).

What are the causes of child labour in India? How do governmental policies affect it? What role does education play in regard to child labour in India? A critical analysis of the answers to these questions may lead in the direction of a possible solution. These questions will be answered through an analysis of the problem of child labour as it is now, investigating how prevalent it is and what types of child labour exist. The necessity of child labour to poor families, and the role of poverty as a determinant will be examined. Governmental policies concerning child labour will be investigated. The current state of education in India will be examined and compared with other developing countries. Compulsory education policies and their relationship to child labour will be investigated using Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Kerala as examples of where these policies have worked. Finally, India’s policies concerning compulsory education will be assessed.


The problem of child labour in India

How many children are involved?

It is difficult to cite a current figure for the number of children engaged in child labour. This difficulty is attributed to the fact that the Indian Government "has been negligent in its refusal to collect and analyze current and relevant data regarding the incidence of child labor. As of 1996, official figures continue to be based on 1981 census figures" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 122). The 1981 Indian census reports that there were 13.6 million child labourers in India (Census of India 1981 cited in Weiner 1991, 20). Indian government extrapolations of this 1981 data place the current number of child labourers at between seventeen and twenty million (Human Rights Watch 1996, 122). This extrapolation seems highly unlikely as "The Official National Sample Survey of 1983 [of India] reports 17.4 million child labourers, while a study . . . sponsored by the Labour Ministry, concluded that the child-labour force was 44 million" (Weiner 1991, 20-21). UNICEF "cites figures ranging from seventy-five to ninety million child laborers under the age of fourteen" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 122). A universal difficulty in obtaining accurate data may be that individuals fail to report child labour participation during surveys, for fear of persecution.

Although the figure for the number of child labourers varies, they are all significantly high when considering that the Child Economic Activity rate for 1980-1991 was 13.5% for males and 10.3% for females (International Labour Organization, 1995, 113). In comparison, other developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia (where data is available), have lower activity rates: 5.3% for males and 4.6% for females in Sri Lanka, and 8.8% for males and 6.5% for females in Malaysia (International Labour Organization, 1995, 113). Historical census data shows an overall child work participation rate of 12.69% in 1961 and 7.13% in 1971 (Census of India 1971 cited in Devi 1985, 50). This data is misleading because the definitions of child labour are different in the two censuses (unpaid workers are not included in the 1971 census), thus a comparison cannot be completely valid (Devi 1985, 37). The data shows that in a span of twenty years (1961-1981), the proportion of children who are working has not changed significantly, but since comparisons with this data are not valid, this conclusion is questionable.

What are children doing in terms of work?

The 1981 Census of India divided child labour into nine industrial divisions: I. Cultivation, II. Agricultural Labour, III. Livestock, Forestry, Fishing, Plantation, IV. Mining and Quarrying, V. Manufacturing, Processing, Servicing and Repairs, VI. Construction, VII. Trade and Commerce, VIII. Transport, Storage and Communication, and IX. Other Services (Census of India 1981 cited in Nangia 1987, 72). Table 1.1 shows the percentage distribution of child workers by these industrial divisions in 1981. From this table it is observed that the majority of rural child workers (84.29%) are employed in cultivation and agricultural labour (divisions I and II). Urban child labourers are distributed differently, as table 1.1 shows 39.16% of them are involved in manufacturing, processing, servicing and repairs. Although more children are involved in agriculturally related jobs (table 1.1 shows a total of 78.67% for divisions I and II), human rights organizations tend to focus on the manufacturing types of child labour because most children in these situations are bonded labourers. Bonded labour "refers to the phenomenon of children working in conditions of servitude in order to pay off a debt" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 2). Estimates place the number of bonded child labourers in India at close to one million (International Labour Organisation 1992, 15).


Causes of child labour in India and governmental policy dealing with it

How necessary is child labour to families in India?

Child labour is a source of income for poor families. A study conducted by the ILO Bureau of Statistics found that "Children’s work was considered essential to maintaining the economic level of households, either in the form of work for wages, of help in household enterprises or of household chores in order to free adult household members for economic activity elsewhere" (Mehra-Kerpelman 1996, 8). In some cases, the study found that a child’s income accounted for between 34 and 37 percent of the total household income. This study concludes that a child labourer’s income is important to the livelihood of a poor family. There is a questionable aspect of this study. It was conducted in the form of a survey, and the responses were given by the parents of the child labourers. Parents would be biased into being compelled to support their decision to send their children to work, by saying that it is essential. They are probably right: for most poor families in India, alternative sources of income are close to non-existent. There are no social welfare systems such as those in the West, nor is there easy access to loans, which will be discussed.

What is apparent is the fact that child labourers are being exploited, shown by the pay that they receive. For the same type of work, studies show that children are paid less than their adult counterparts. Table 2.1 shows a comparison of child wages to adult wages obtained by a study of child workers in the Delhi region of India. Although 39.5% of employers said that child workers earn wages equal to adults, if the percentage of employers admitting that wages are lower for children are added up, a figure of 35.9% is found. This figure is significant when taking the bias of employers into account. Employers would have been likely to defend their wages for child workers, by saying that children earn the same wages as adults. The fact that no employers stated children earned more than adults, should be also be noted. Other studies have also concluded that "children’s earnings are consistently lower than those of adults, even where there two groups are engaged in the same tasks" (Bequele and Boyden cited in Grootaert and Kanbur 1995, 195).

What role does poverty play?

The percentage of the population of India living in poverty is high. In 1990, 37% of the urban population and 39% of the rural population was living in poverty (International Labour Organization 1995, 107). Poverty has an obvious relationship with child labour, and studies have "revealed a positive correlation - in some instances a strong one - between child labour and such factors as poverty" (Mehra-Kerpelman 1996, 8). Families need money to survive, and children are a source of additional income. Poverty itself has underlying determinants, one such determinant being caste. When analyzing the caste composition of child labourers Nangia (1987) observes that, "if these figures are compared with the caste structure of the country, it would be realised that a comparatively higher proportion of scheduled caste children work at a younger age for their own and their families’ economic support" (p. 116). Scheduled caste (lower caste) children tend to be pushed into child labour because of their family’s poverty. Nangia (1987) goes on to state that in his study 63.74% of child labourers said that poverty was the reason they worked (p. 174).

The combination of poverty and the lack of a social security network form the basis of the even harsher type of child labour -- bonded child labour. For the poor, there are few sources of bank loans, governmental loans or other credit sources, and even if there are sources available, few Indians living in poverty qualify. Here enters the local moneylender; for an average of two thousand rupees, parents exchange their child’s labour to local moneylenders (Human Rights Watch 1996, 17). Since the earnings of bonded child labourers are less than the interest on the loans, these bonded children are forced to work, while interest on their loans accumulates. A bonded child can only be released after his/her parents makes a lump sum payment, which is extremely difficult for the poor (Human Rights Watch 1996, 17). Even if bonded child labourers are released, "the same conditions of poverty that caused the initial debt can cause people to slip back into bondage" (International Labour Organization 1993, 12).

Even though poverty is cited as the major cause of child labour, it is not the only determinant. Inadequate schools, a lack of schools, or even the expense of schooling leaves some children with little else to do but work. The attitudes of parents also contribute to child labour; some parents feel that children should work in order to develop skills useful in the job market, instead of taking advantage of a formal education.

Indian Government Policy on Child Labour

From the time of its independence, India has committed itself to be against child labour. Article 24 of the Indian constitution clearly states that "No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment" (Constitution of India cited in Jain 1985, 218). Article 39 (e) directs State policy such "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" (Constitution of India cited in Human Rights Watch 1996, 29). These two articles show that India has always had the goal of taking care of its children and ensuring the safety of workers. The Bonded Labour System Act of 1976 fulfills the Indian Constitution’s directive of ending forced labour. The Act "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" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 30). In regard to child labour, the Indian government implemented the Child Labour Act in 1986. The purpose of this act is to "prohibit the employment of children who have not completed their 14th year in specified hazardous occupations and processes" (Narayan 1988, 146). ILO convention No. 138 suggests that the minimum age for employment should not be less than fifteen years, and thus the Child Labour Act of 1986 does not meet this target (Subrahmanya 1987, 105).

A recent advance in government policy occurred in August of 1994, when then- Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced his proposal of an Elimination of Child Labour Programme. This program pledges to end child labour for two million children in hazardous industries as defined in the Child Labour Act of 1986, by the year 2000. The program revolves around an incentive for children to quit their work and enter non-formal schooling: a one hundred rupee payment as well as one meal a day for attending school (Human Rights Watch 1996, 119-120). Where the funds for this program will come from is unknown. The government needs eight and a half billion dollars for the program over five years, and yet "about 4 percent of the five-year estimated cost was allocated for child labour elimination programs in 1995-1996" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 120).

All of the policies that the Indian government has in place are in accordance with the Constitution of India, and all support the eradication of Child Labour. The problem of child labour still remains even though all of these policies are existent. Enforcement is the key aspect that is lacking in the government’s efforts. No enforcement data for child labour laws are available: "A glaring sign of neglect of their duties by officials charged with enforcing child labor laws is the failure to collect, maintain, and disseminate accurate statistics regarding enforcement efforts" (Human Rights Watch 1996, 131). Although the lack of data does not mean enforcement is nonexistent, the number of child labourers and their work participation rates show that enforcement, if existent, is ineffective.


Education and its effects on child labour

What is the current state of education in India in comparison to other developing countries?

India’s state of education lacks effectiveness in yielding basic literacy in the population. It has been observed that "the overall condition of the education system can be a powerful influence on the supply of child labour" (Grootaert and Kanbur 1995, 193). The 1991 Census of India shows that 64% of males and 39% of females are literate (The World Bank 1995, 113) -- an increase of 17% and 14% respectively from the 1981 census (Census of India 1981 cited in Weiner 1991, 11). These increases seem significant, but India’s overall literacy rate of 40.8% lags behind other developing countries such as China (72.6%), Sri Lanka (86.1%), and Indonesia (74.1%), all of which have Per Capita Incomes comparable to India’s (Weiner 1991, 161). India’s primary-school survival rate of 38.0% is also lower than China’s rate of 70.0% and Sri Lanka’s rate of 90.8% (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization cited in Weiner 1991, 159). This indicates that few students are reaching fifth or sixth grade, and dropout rates support this conclusion. Dropout rates measured by the Department of Education show that 35% of males and 39% of females dropout (Government of India cited in The World Bank 1995, 113). What is the reason for these high dropout rates and poor school survival rates? One possible argument given by Nangia (1987) is that "the pressing need for the child’s earnings as well as low perceived advantages of school" cause parents to withdraw children from school and deposit them in the labour force (p.182). In this case, poverty and the inadequacy of the school system play significant roles in causing child labour, but also affect each other. Poverty forces high dropout rates, and thus no matter how good schools are, school survival rates and literacy rates will still remain low.

Compulsory Education

The concept of compulsory education, where all school aged children are required to attend school, combats the force of poverty that pulls children out of school. Policies relating to compulsory education not only force children to attend school, but also contribute appropriate funds to the primary education system, instead of higher education.

An example of a country where compulsory education has worked to reduce child labour is Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government decided to enforce compulsory education in the 1920’s and 1930’s (Weiner 1991, 173). With this compulsory education policy, school participation rates rose from 58 percent in 1946 to 74 percent in 1963 (Weiner 1991, 173). The literacy rate also increased from 58 percent in 1946 to 86 percent in 1984 (Weiner 1991, 172). The corresponding result has been that the employment rate of children in the ten to fourteen age group has shown a substantial decline from 13 percent in 1946 to 6.2 percent in 1963 (Weiner 1991, 174), and currently stands at 5.3% for males and 4.6% for females (International Labour Organization 1995, 113). These trends lead Weiner (1991) to the conclusion that "Sri Lanka has achieved a remarkably high enrollment rate, high retention rate, and a corresponding decline in child labor" (p.175).

The Indian state of Kerala distinguishes itself from the rest of India with its educational system. 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 (Weiner 1991, 175). It is not only the expenditure of more funds, but where the funds are used that make the difference. Kerala spends more money on "mass education than colleges and universities" (Weiner 1991, 176). No correlation exists between expenditure on education and literacy when comparing different countries because some countries, such as India, spend more funds on higher education than primary education (Weiner 1991, 160). Kerala’s emphasis on primary education has lead to a dropout rate of close to 0%, a literacy rate of 94% for males and 86% for females (The World Bank 1995, 113), and a low child work participation rate of 1.9% (in 1971) compared to the Indian average of 7.1% in 1971 (Weiner 1991, 175). Weiner (1991) points out that "The Kerala government has made no special effort to end child labor. It is the expansion of the school system rather than the enforcement of labor legislation that has reduced the amount of child labor" (p. 177).

Article 45 of the Constitution of India 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" (Jain 1985, 219). It is obvious that "the State" has not achieved this goal, shown by the literacy, dropout, and child work participation rates discussed previously. A National Policy on Education was adopted in 1986, and it addresses the need to "expand and improve basic education" (The World Bank 1995, 124). Recently, the central government implemented The District Primary Education Program (DPEP), in an attempt to act on the recommendations of the National Policy on Education. The program involves the subsidizing of approved investments, by the Government of India. The central government will provide a grant of 85% on expenditures by the states (The World Bank 1995, 123). Since these measures have been implemented very recently, results cannot be obtained and the effectiveness of the DPEP cannot be commented on at this time.



Child labour is a significant problem in India. The prevalence of it is shown by the child work participation rates which are higher in Indian than in other developing countries.

The major determinant of child labour is poverty. Even though children are paid less than adults, whatever income they earn is of benefit to poor families. In addition to poverty, the lack of adequate and accessible souces of credit forces poor parents to engage their children in the harsher form of child labour -- bonded child labour. Some parents also feel that a formal education is not beneficial, and that children learn work skills through labour at a young age. These views are narrow and do not take the long term developmental benefits of education into account. Another determinant is access to education. In some areas, education is not affordable, or is found to be inadequate. With no other alternatives, children spend their time working.

The Constitution of India clearly states that child labour is wrong and that measures should be taken to end it. The government of India has implemented the Child Labour Act in 1986 that outlaws child labour in certain areas and sets the minimum age of employment at fourteen. This Act falls short of making all child labour illegal, and fails to meet the ILO guideline concerning the minimum age of employment set at fifteen years of age. Though policies are in place that could potentially reduce the incidence of child labour, enforcement is a problem. If child labour is to be eradicated in India, the government and those responsible for enforcement need to start doing their jobs. Policies can and will be developed concerning child labour, but without enforcement they are all useless.

The state of education in India also needs to be improved. High illiteracy and dropout rates are reflective of the inadequacy of the educational system. Poverty plays a role in the ineffectiveness of the educational system. Dropout rates are high because children are forced to work in order to support their families. The attitudes of the people also contribute to the lack of enrollment -- parents feel that work develops skills that can be used to earn an income, while education does not help in this matter. Compulsory education may help in regard to these attitudes. The examples of Sri Lanka and Kerala show that compulsory education has worked in those areas. There are differences between Sri Lanka, Kerala and the rest of India. What types of social welfare structures do these places have? What are the attitudes of the people? Is there some other reason why the labour market for child labourers is poor in these areas? These are some questions that need to be answered before applying the concept of compulsory education to India? India is making progress in terms of educational policy. The DPEP has been implemented only four years ago, and so results are not apparent at this time. Hopefully the future will show that this program has made progress towards universal education, and eradicating child labour.

Child labour cannot be eliminated by focusing on one determinant, for example education, or by brute enforcement of child labour laws. The government of India must ensure that the needs of the poor are filled before attacking child labour. If poverty is addressed, the need for child labour will automatically diminish. No matter how hard India tries, child labour always will exist until the need for it is removed. The development of India as a nation is being hampered by child labour. Children are growing up illiterate because they have been working and not attending school. A cycle of poverty is formed and the need for child labour is reborn after every generation. India needs to address the situation by tackling the underlying causes of child labour through governmental policies and the enforcement of these policies. Only then will India succeed in the fight against child labour.

Table 1.1 - Percentage distribution of child workers (in India) by industrial divisions in 1981 (Census of India 1981 cited in Nangia 1987, 72).

Type of Worker

Industrial Divisions (refer to text for explanation of divisions)










































Table 2.1 - Comparison of child wages and adult wages for the same type of job. (Child workers of Delhi region -- sample study, 1983 cited in Nangia 1987, 198).


Child wages compared to adult wages



Equal to Half

Half to One-third

One-third to One-quarter

Less than One-quarter


Percent according to employers’ response








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Content Copyright ©1998 Mitesh Badiwala