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Child Labour in India: The Causes

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 Government 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).

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.

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