Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Unconscionably, the Indian state outlaws child work only in what are notified as ‘hazardous’ occupations Harsh Mander
The majority of children in the world who are trapped in labour instead of going to school are born and raised in India. The surprise but welcome Nobel for an indefatigable Indian warrior against child labour must compel us to turn the spotlight on one of our collectively forgotten but gravest cruelties, that of stealing childhood and hope from millions of our children whose only crime is that they are born into immense poverty and want.
Unconscionably, the Indian state outlaws child work only in what are notified as ‘hazardous’ occupations. Beyond the age of 14, even these prohibitions disappear. Whereas the rest of us aspire for the best for our own children, we have no problem that children of the disadvantaged are forced to squander their childhood labouring in farms, factories, waste heaps, roadside eateries and our homes.
Children are preferred to adult workers because they are submissive and low-paid, or because adults refuse work that is very unsafe and poorly paid. Boys are employed in mines because tunnels are too small for adults to crawl through, and trades such as carpet weaving or agricultural picking benefit from children’s ‘nimble fingers’. Due to official indifference to these children, there has never been a comprehensive child labour survey in India, and estimates from the census and National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) surveys are likely to undervalue the scale of the problem, because the children are powerless and invisible. The definition of child labour is also limited to work done by children for remuneration in the market.
By this definition, around 5 million children, or 2% of all children are in work. But activists and scholars believe that all children who are not enrolled in schools are child workers, including children engaged in household chores and sibling care. This would expand the number of children in work seven-fold, to 15% of our child population. Given that school enrolment figures are inflated, the numbers are likely to be even higher. In states like Bihar, the proportion of children who are not in school or recorded in work is higher than 28%.
The India Human Development Report 2011 establishes that a child’s chances of being in labour instead of in school are significantly higher if she is born into a Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim household. In particular tribal children are twice more likely to be child labourers than upper caste children. More than half of child workers are in agriculture, followed by manufacturing, trade, hotels and construction. Many children still work in outlawed hazardous occupations. Our collective tolerance of persisting child labour results from deeply embedded ideas of caste. The social perception persists that children of the poor and disadvantaged castes basically need to be trained not to work their minds but to pursue the trades of their parents; education in school prepares children for intellectual vocations, which are rightly the domain of the relatively wealthy and higher castes.
The alternate democratic idea that the potential for intellectual achievement is likely to be evenly distributed within all social, economic and religious groups has not permeated. School education does little to promote the dignity of labour. School is also often a hostile site for children who come from disadvantaged families. The India Exclusion Report 2013-14 of the Centre for Equity Studies portrays how children from Dalit backgrounds report neglect, segregation and humiliation by teachers and peers, and Muslim children stereotyping, which also spur them to drop out of school and work. Children are pushed into work and out of schools most by grave poverty. Our work with households that live with hunger demonstrates that they feel compelled into desperate choices, including sending their children to work, often in early childhood. This is often linked to a cash advance to the family, trapping the child into debt bondage.
Tribal families send children for domestic work to cities, where they are trafficked and maltreated. Families are forced to migrate seasonally for bare survival, and have no option except to take their children with them, to distant brick kilns and construction sites, and sometimes to waste dumps for rag-picking. We also find that boys at a very young age begin to accompany their fathers when they migrate to places like Punjab for wage labour.
The causal linkage between poverty and child labour is obvious, but this should not be treated as a rationalisation of child labour. Even more than poverty being the cause of child labour, it is child labour which is the cause of persisting poverty. Unless a child enters and stays in school, she will never be able to escape the impoverishment of her parents. And if children opt out of work, the work will have to be given to adults, who in turn will be better able to support their children and send them to school. Nothing justifies sending a child to work instead of school.
The work of my colleagues with around 4,000 street children in six cities demonstrates dramatically to me that because all of these children are now in residential school, they will never pick waste and beg like their parents. Is this not the minimum that India must promise to every one of our children? Making our children labour is a collective crime in which each of us is culpable, and the time has come for us to atone with a resolve to sweep away the cobwebs of our history which has accepted for too long that children born into poverty are entitled to such unequal destinies. Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.