India is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world. A census found an increase in the number of child beggars from 11.28 million to 12.59 million in 2001. Child labour involves employment of children in any work that deprives them of their childhood.  It interferes with their ability to attend regular school and is mentally, socially, physically or morally dangerous or harmful. Legislations across the world prohibit child labour.

According to ILO minimum age convention, child labour is any work performed by children under the age of 12, non-light work done by children aged 12–14, and hazardous work done by children aged 15–17. Light work was defined as any work that does not harm a child’s health and development, and that does not interfere with his or her attendance at school. This convention has been confirmed by 135 countries.

India passed legislation since 1986 allowing work by children in non-hazardous industry. In 2013, the Punjab and Haryana High Court gave an order that directed that there shall be total ban on the employment of children up to the age of 14 years, be it hazardous or non-hazardous industries. However, the Court ruled that a child can work with his or her family in family based occupations, for the purpose of learning a new trade or vocation.

In spite of stringent legislations regarding child labour, it is increasingly being practised in India. Poverty and lack of social security are the major reasons behind the increase.  The increasing gap between the rich and the poor has caused major section of the population out of employment and deprived them of basic services.  Such differences affect children more than anyone else.  In fact International Labour Organization (ILO) has labelled poverty as the single greatest cause of child labour. For poor households income generated from the children is crucial to child’s survival or the survival of the household. Income derived from these children may be as low as 20 percent but still is important to these households.  Even the entry of multinational corporations into the industry without proper mechanisms to hold them accountable has led to child labour.

There is a major role played by the education sector in the same. Since most of the schools fail to provide proper education, a high rate of students dropping out of schools is witnessed.  According to ILO, lack of quality education and affordable schools are also an important reason for the high statistics on child labour. Many communities especially in rural areas which contribute 60-70% of child labour are prevalent; do not possess adequate schools facilities. Even if such facilities are available, the schools are sometimes far away, difficult to reach or lack adequate staff. Another reason is that the quality of education of the parents is sometimes so low that they are unable to identify the worth of going to the school. There are many communities which promote that the children should start helping their parents as soon as possible. Thus at a very tender age, children help their parents at their work, miss school and also perform activities which are dangerous for them or may affect their health.

In many households, education of a girl child is not promoted. Many are not sent to school and are forced into domestic services. This is a growing phenomenon in urban areas.  In many instances the conditions in which children work is completely unregulated and they are sometimes made to work without food. Many of them are paid very low wages and are made to work in conditions resembling slavery. There are many cases of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of child domestic workers.

What is even more important is that many of these child labourers go undetected. The actual numbers thus reflect a far graver situation of child labour in India. Although there has been a notification issued by the Ministry of Labour which makes child domestic labour as well as employment of children in dhabas, tea stalls and restaurants as hazardous occupations.  A lot of contribution to the same is drawn from the laws that remain ineffective and are unable to protect the children from hazardous activities. According to HAQ : Centre for Child Rights, child labour is highest among schedule tribes, Muslims, schedule caste and OBC children. The persistence of child labour is due to the inefficiency of the law and administrative system. Various growing concerns have pushes many children out of schools and have forced them into various unsuitable employment traps. Girl children are often used in domestic labour within their own homes. There seems to be a lack of political will to actually see to the complete ban of child labour.

Where on one side concerns have often been raised over the buying public’s moral complicity in purchasing products assembled or otherwise manufactured in developing countries with child labour, the other side has raised concerns that boycotting products manufactured through child labour may force these children to turn to more dangerous or strenuous professions, such as prostitution. For example, a UNICEF study found that when Child Labour Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to activities such as stone crushing, street hustling and prostitution.

Bonded labour is another important area of concern and majority of it is found in the informal sector. Bonded labour is a form of slavery in which an employment is done against a loan or debt or social obligation by the family of the child or the family as a whole. Children who are bonded with their family or inherit a debt from their parents are often found in agricultural sector. It usually leads to trafficking of children to urban areas for employment and have children are made to work under strenuously. Bonded labourers in India are mostly migrant workers, which opens them up to more exploitation as they mostly come from low caste groups such as dalits or are mostly marginalised tribes. Bonded child labourers are at very high risk for physical and sexual abuse and neglect to these circumstances sometimes leads to their death.

In 2000 the International Labour Organizations estimated that around 5.5 million children had been forced in labour in Asia, while the Bonded Labour Liberation Front placed around 10 million bonded children in India alone.

While on one side it is clear that technological and economic change are vital ingredients in getting children out of the workplace and into schools where they can grow to become productive adults and live healthier lives, the other side shows that in poor countries, working children are essential for survival in many families. So, while the struggle to end child labour is necessary, getting there often requires taking different routes, and, sadly, there are many political obstacles to end it.

Sources : Childline India Foundation