The UPA government’s flagship plan to get every teenager between 14 and 18 into secondary school by 2020 has run up against an unlikely roadblock – a counter proposal from within the government to allow these children to work on India’s often unsafe streets.
The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill has triggered concerns within the country’s education establishment, with the human resource development (HRD) ministry worried that the planned law could kill India’s goal of universal secondary education. The Bill was cleared by cabinet this week, and may be introduced in Parliament during the ongoing session.
Aimed at legalizing the status of street vendors, the new bill allows anyone over 14 to work as a hawker with a licence, while capping their total number at 2.5% of the city, zone or ward. Street vendors’ organizations have long demanded the law to save their community from the frequent harassment members face from the police.
“But by allowing teenagers to work as street vendors, the law could deal a death blow to our secondary education promise,” a senior HRD ministry official said, adding that the ministry planned to take up its concerns with the housing and urban poverty alleviation (HUPA) ministry that piloted the street vendor bill.
Launched in 2009 barely hours before the model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha elections kicked in, the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) has the declared goals of ensuring access to secondary education for all children by 2017, and universal retention by 2020. The UPA is also examining the possibility of extending the Right to Education Act – that currently guarantees schooling to all children between 6 and 14 – to cover students till 16 or even 18.
Proponents of the street vendors’ bill in its current form however argue that the law is on their side. India's recently amended child labour law bars children under 14 from working in any occupation, but allows those between 14 and 18 to work in "non-hazardous" jobs. “Street vending comes under this category," said a HUPA ministry official.
By vending, these children help supplement the income of their families – typically belonging to economically weak sections. "It’s the reality," said Arvind Singh, national coordinator, National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI). “The bill is not preventing these children from getting further education.”
But across the streets of the country’s cities, many teenage street vendors – selling wares ranging from patriotic mementos and pens to cheap Chinese electronic goods – work outside the safety net of their families, vulnerable to the same economic and physical exploitation that marks child labour.
The HRD ministry also points to twin reasons why it is essential for the government to stick to its promise of ensuring secondary schooling for all.
The first involves the right to education that is going to churn out a growing number of 14-year-olds who previously may not have pursued schooling but are now used to government sponsored education and higher schooling. “When these 14-year-olds complete class 8, we can’t suddenly tell them to fend for themselves if they want education,” an official explained.
“That’s why we have to ensure their right to secondary education.”
But the second reason -- the reason why the government isn’t looking at universal secondary education as a right – affects India’s once-in-a- century demographic dividend. With over 600 million citizens under 30, India is set to become the world’s youngest major economy, with an army of youth who, if skilled, could fill the growing demand for skilled workers in the aging west. Even if a large chunk of India’s teenagers don’t pursue higher education, they need secondary schooling to enter the skills training programmes India is building to capture the economic gains its youth offer.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights -- India's apex child rights panel -- and many activists have also pointed to the globally-recognized relative safety that schools offer teenagers compared to streets. Crimes against minors and girls have sparked multiple protests in recent months.