by jamal siddiqui
Published on: May 21, 2004
Type: Opinions

We are guilty of many errors and faults,
But our worst crime is abandoning the children,
Neglecting the foundation of life,
Many of the things we need can wait,
The child can not,
Right now is the time his bones are being formed,
His blood is being made,
And his senses are being developed,
To him we cannot answer
His name is Today…
Dare we answer “Tomorrow”?

--Gabriel Mistral


Children are the blooming flowers in the garden of society. They are the most valuable assets of the nation as “Children of today are the potential citizens of tomorrow”. The quality of life, they relish today would categorically determine the quality of life of future population of the nation. The children have rights like other human beings, to be respected with regard to their integrity, dignity, interests and opinions. But significantly enough, children in India are deprived of even the basic human rights due to them, as they ought to be in any civilised society.

There is no denying the facts that children being defenceless and voiceless have suffered throughout the ages at the hand of society, community and parents. Millions of children, for example, are physically or sexually abused or economically exploited by those who are presumed to bestow them security and love. Despite hectic planning, welfare programmes, legislation and administrative actions in past five decades; especially after 1979 - International year of the child; the majority of Indian children continue to remain in distress and turmoil. We still score first rank in world when highest number of child labourers is talked about.

What is Child Labour?

It is difficult to define child labour since the terms “child” and “labour” both resist universal definition because of cultural and social differences from one country to another. ILO (International Labour Office) has specified the concept through its – Minimum Age convention 1973 – Where it encourages member states to set a minimum age that is not less then the completion age for compulsory schooling, or in any case not less than 15 years. So in India a child labourer is one who is below 18 years of age, out of school and has no avocation other than work. Although child work is not synonymous to child to labour, most children, in whatever society they live, work in one way or another. For example, in rural areas of India most of the children are involved in agriculture, cultivation forestry etc. Work of this kind is not considered child labour.

Situation of Child Labour

World wide at least 120 million children between the ages of 5 to 14 years work full time and there are 250 million or more children do child labour as secondary activity.[ILO Bureau of statistics 2000] Asia alone covers almost 60% of total child labour force of world, whereas 32% in Africa, and 7% in Latin America. Percentages of Economically active children in Asia between 10-14 years of age (Source ILO, Estimates & projections 1995)
Bhutan 55%
Nepal 45%
Bangladesh 30%
Pakistan 18%
Thailand 16%
India 14%
China 12%
Indonesia 10%
Vietnam 9%
Philippines 8%
Malaysia 3%

In an Indian Scenario – child labour is a phenomenon. The magnitude of the child labour force may be considered as an indicator of economic development, political maturity and social order of a region or a country. A larger child work force thus indicates symptoms of an underdeveloped country and unjust social order, official estimates of number of employed children below 14 years of age is 18.4 million which means every 8th child of 5-14 years in our country is a worker. While Non-governmental figures put it at 44 million to 111 million among which 15 million are bonded labourers. Government figures are definitely incomplete since full information never flows to government channels particularly in the case of informal sector. “Asian Labour Monitor” reveals that every 3rd houses hold in India has a working child. According to Human Rights watch (1996) there were 60-115 million working children in India and also estimated that in year 2000 there will be 20.25 million working children in India.

If regional distribution of child labour is considered, one can find that almost 90% of child labour is found in eleven states of AP, MP, UP, Maharashtra, Karnatraka, Bihar, T.N. Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujrat andWest Bengal. The highest number of cases is in Andra Pradesh (14.30%) & the lowest in West Bengal (4.4%).

But one of the very noteworthy facts of child labour in India is that there has been a fall in the overall population of work children during last two decades. The numbers of working children according to 1971 census was 10.75 million which increased to 13.64 million in 1981 but during 1991 it was 11.28 million indicating a 17.3% decrease in 10 years. Even out of total population there were 2% working children in 1981 which reduced to 1.34 in 1991.

Primary Factors

• Poverty
• Vested interests of employers
• Indebtedness
• Sustaining Factors
• Cheaper labour
• Irreplaceable skill

Promoting Factors

• Absence of Compulsory education
• Apathy of Government


In a country like India where over 40% of population is under extreme poverty, child labour has become a complex issue. Poverty pushes a child into work and exploitative condition at an early age. However it is a widely accepted misconception that child labour is an unavoidable consequence of poverty, but it is true that child labour is mainly caused by poverty. It is poverty which forces parents to send their children to seek employment to supplement low family income.

Vested Interests of Employers

Employers give certain justifications for employing children to suppress their guilt and hide their vested Interest. They say that the work keeps children away from starvation. They are prevented from committing crime which they would have indulged in it they had no jobs. But the fact is employers employ them to save labour cost in production, which ultimately leads to profit maximization.


Indebtedness among families especially rural agricultural indebtedness is another may cause for families to keep their children employed as domestic servants, agriculture workers. This is also one of the major causes for bonded labour.

Cheaper Labour

Child labour ensures more profits and higher productivity for the employers since child labour is cheap compared to adult labour. Most of child labourers are employed in small scale or cottage industries, for example: Bidi making fire, crackers etc., where generally investments are limited, so children being source of cheap labour are employed.

Irreplaceable skills

A very common justification for sustaining child labour is that there are certain works which can only be performed by children for example in the gem polishing industry of Jaipur it is believed that gem polishing can only be learned through practice right from childhood.

Absence of Compulsory Education

Absence of any provision for compulsory education is another cause of it. Substandard education facilities cost of education and low quality or education offered all combine to perpetuate the problem, since family of child labourers consider education as “time consuming” “money consuming” and “unproductive” exercise.

Government apathy

Until now the Government believed that child labour can not be eradicated completed therefore they have only tried to improve their working conditions and stop their exploitation. The Government holds the view that eradicating child labour is not feasible because they can not provide substantial alternate employment to them.

Condition of Child Labourers

Two decades after the International year of child, children in India are still working in precarious conditions detrimental to their health and development. At very early age many of them are involved in household work they are often among the most vulnerable and exploited fall yet hey are also the most difficult to protect.

A large number of child workers are virtually confined in small rooms under inhuman conditions and most unhygienic surroundings of various chemicals, glass, firework, gem polishing or carpet making industrial units. The hazardous conditions take their toll; children suffer from lung diseases, T.B., eye infections and diseases, asthma. Some are injured in fire incidents.

Some of them are bounded labourers; there were many incidences especially in carpet manufacturing belt of U.P. The commercial sexual exploitation of children has become a global issue. Indicators show that children are increasingly being bought and sold across borders by organised networks.

Child labour has many repercussions on children well being and personality developments for e.g. Working children are denied educational opportunities and their mental growth is thereby stunted. Working for long hours, usually away from their families, they are totally deprived of their childhood joy getting no time for recreation or rest or for emotional sustenance, which is normally derived from family members.


U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child

It is because of widespread plights of children, that in Dec. 1976, the United Nations adopted a resolution which proclaimed 1979 as International year of children, as a part of advocacy on behalf of children. After a decade of campaigning, the UN General assembly adopted the convention on the Rights of child on November 20th, 1989. The adoption of convention was not only a great step for promotion of child rights but also constitutes a legal binding instrument to fend children’s right. The nations of the world have agreed on the minimum standard set out in the convention, for the protection of children right to survival, health, education.

Generally speaking, the provision of convention applies for four main areas of children rights:

(1) The rights to survival (Art 6 & 24)
It includes the right of life, the highest attainable standards of health, nutrition of adequate standards of living. It also includes the right to a name and nationality.

(2) The right to protection (Art 18 & 32)
It includes freedom from all forms of exploitation, abuse, inhuman or degrading treatment and neglect including the right to special protection in situations of emergency and armed conflicts.

(3) The right to development (Art 6 & 28)
Includes the right to education, support for early childhood development and care, social security, and the right to leisure, recreation and cultural activities.

(4)The right to participation (Art 12)
Includes respect for the views of the child, freedom of expression, access to appropriate information and freedom of though, conscience and religion.

Convention has also provided certain guidelines for adopting as well as implementing the convention at National, regional and international level.

Government Initiatives and their Failure

Long before International convention on the rights of the child, constitution of India provides safeguards for children through certain directives. For example “Article 24” of constitution says that children below 14 years should not be employed in factory, mine or any other hazardous condition/ occupation. Article 35(e) urges that the tender age of children ought not to be abused and argues against their being given such work which is not suited to their age. On the other hand Article 45(f) is mandate to the state to try and provide free and compulsory education.

In spite of all these provisions, the law makers have to bow down to the harsh reality of a national situation, neglecting the UN convention’s recommendations. Several Acts are periodically enacted with a view to providing legal protection to children in various occupations. To start with Indian factory Act 1948, which provide (Sec 67) employment of young children (14 years) and many such other acts like Plantation labour act 1951 which prohibited employment of under 12 years in plantation. Merchant shipping act 1951, Mines Act 1952, Apprentices Act 1961, Beedi & Cigar Worker (Condition of employment) Act 1966.

But these acts have hardly provided any protection to children by limiting their working hours, wages, and safety in hazardous occupations. On the contrary, as a cheap source of labour, their exploitation continued unabated.

Even the latest Child Labour (Regulation & Prohibition) act 1986 adds nothing substantial to the previous acts. In fact this act has been criticized for institutionalizing and regularizing child labour rather than moving towards its elimination. Only children working in organised sector (10%) are covered by the act. In envisages anti poverty measures to rehabilitate child workers without offering an alternative to their employees for whom children are a cheap source of labour. Even punishment for them is too light. Besides, the act does not include many occupations which are really hazardous like bangle factories or the slate industries. It only tried to improve their working conditions – reducing working hours, ensuring minimum wages and providing facilities for health and education.

NGO Initiatives

So far role of government & international efforts in promoting rights of child was discussed. The NGO community has emerged to be a potent force in catalyzing various actions through the mobilization of social forces and pressing govt. to take needed action. There are many examples of NGO’s successfully working both for the integrated development of children and the elimination of child labour. Some are engaged in implementing NFE programmes with the help of grant-in-aid from ministry of labour, and yet others with the assistance from IPEC (International Program for Elimination of Child Labour). Worth of special mention are – CREDA (Centre for rural education and development action), Bandhwa Mukti Morcha, M.V. foundation etc. These NGO’s have very successfully worked in the area of child labour, played a very significant role in fighting against bonded labour and other explorations of children and motivating families for giving education to their children instead of sending them for work.

Hundred of NGOs are working across the country with great enthusiasm and dedication to identify and release of children from work & to rehabilitate them. They work in varied circumstances against heavy odds. Some of them have met with only partial success but the magnitude of the problem of child labour in India is so large that occasional success may not create a perceptible impact despite the best efforts.

Suggestions of Conclusion

The issue before us today is to find ways and means to eradicate the multiple forms of child abuse and neglect suffered by child workers. Undoubtedly the problem has to be tackled at different levels. Any attempt to eliminate this injustice only by the magic formula of legal ban is unworkable; rather it must be carried out through economic upliftment, education & strong political education and strong political will to enforce policies.

It is a fact that child labour can not be set aside completely until improvement in economic condition of society at large can be ensured up to the point where child labour became unprofitable and unnecessary. Today in India we have 55 million children, working in different industries on the one hand and an equal number of unemployed adults on the other hand. According to rough estimates, the respective figures of these phenomena have been running parallel since 1947. At that time the number of child labourers was 10 million (approx0 and the number of unemployed adults was roughly equal. So it we can curb child labour we can also find solution for adult unemployment. Maximum job opportunities created every year are preferentially given to children since they are cheapest source of labour. So logically speaking it we do not eradicate child labour today, we will be responsible for perpetuating poverty and unemployment of 55 million adults of country.

But child labour can not be eliminated by focussing on one factor there are other factors also like education; universalization of primary education would undoubtedly help in reducing child labour. Government has not pressed seriously for compulsory education. The cost of making primary education universal is undoubtedly high, but cost of not having compulsory education is even higher and the highest cost is paid by children themselves. Participation of children in schools will reduce their participation in labour activities.

And finally, it is also up to the Governments political will to implement the guidelines of its own constitution as well as of International conventions on child rights, whereas International agencies should also pressurize nations to implement the conventions. Though policies of conventions are in place that could potentially reduce the incidences of child labour, but their enforcement is problem. If child labour is to be eradicated from India the government and those responsible for enforcement need to start doing their job.

« return.