Herding cattle and weaving carpets, on city waste-heaps, at traffic lights, in roadside eateries, in farms and in factories, in brick kilns and coal mines, in brothels and in our homes, children of the poor work at an age when our own are in school or at play.
What is remarkable is not just our collective acceptance of such diverging destinies of children merely because of the accident of where they are born. I find astounding that even today the law in India permits most children of any age to work, except in a relatively small band of prohibited ‘hazardous’ occupations, such as in foundries, fireworks factories, mines and kilns. Even these limited prohibitions are rarely enforced; the country reports no more than a few thousand prosecutions every year, and even fewer convictions.
There is no ban on children working, for instance, in farmers’ fields, inhaling toxic pesticides and chemicals — agriculture, in fact, accounts for over 70% of waged child workers; nor on children in rag-picking, tea-stalls or domestic work. The 2001 census reported over 5 lakh children working below the age of 5, and 13 million children in various forms of work. Child rights activists argue that the numbers are much larger, because every child who is not in school is a hidden child worker, rearing younger siblings, tending the home, or helping parents earn.
The official explanation of why it is acceptable for children to work is summarised in the Gurupadaswamy Committee Report, 1981: ‘...as long as poverty continued, it would be difficult to totally eliminate child labour and hence, any attempt to abolish it through legal recourse would not be a practical proposition’. This ‘pragmatism’ continues to dominate the government’s stand on working children. Even many progressive activists and thinkers are agnostic about a complete ban in child labour, because they see few options for an impoverished family than to send their children to earn, rather than to school.
I have no doubt that desperation drives indigent parents to send their children to work at a young age. Under no circumstances, therefore, should any law penalise parents for the hopeless hunger, unemployment and debt in which they are trapped. But this can’t be an alibi for the State, freeing it from its duty to ensure that children are not in work but at school. Child labour is not just the outcome of poverty but also its cause. It is only by escaping work into school that a child has any hope of escaping the drudgery and want of her parents and grandparents.
Child work takes a permanent toll on a child’s body, mind and spirit. Without education, chances are that a landless agricultural worker’s child will remain a labourer, and a ragpicker’s child a ragpicker. And the experience in districts where child work is effectively eliminated is that when child workers are unavailable, adults are employed instead, getting higher wages than children, and the entire family is better off than when children worked.
An even more worrying defence of child work by government departments is that banning child labour would make several Indian exports uncompetitive, because adults would have to be paid more for the same work. Empirically, only a small proportion of Indian exports employ child labour. Even if they did not, surely India’s economic growth cannot be built on the thin shoulders of our working children. But there is worrying evidence that many companies are increasingly relying on work contracted to households, which evades their legal responsibilities to workers, and spreads a legal shroud on employing child workers within homes.
Some suggest that child work is necessary to enable artisanal, farming and fishing communities to teach their skills to their next generation. Children can learn these traditional trades even after school hours, or on vacations. But stretched beyond a point, this argument can become a disguised rationalisation of the caste system. Why should the child of a weaver, ironsmith or paddy cultivator necessarily be taught to follow the vocation of his parents when he grows to adulthood? The arguments of dignity of labour are valid only if middle class children are equally taught to work with their hands.
I am privileged to work with a few hundred children who only a few years ago begged in temples and dargahs, recycled trash in trains or waste-dumps, or picked pockets. We knocked on the doors of many schools, but only a few opened their gates to them. Today, they already excel among their classmates, sing, dance, play, and enjoy a childhood long denied to them. When they grow into adulthood, they will not beg, or pick rags, or sleep on city pavements, as their parents did.
The current legality of child work flies in the face of the fundamental right of every child to be in school. If the State is bound by its constitutional duty to ensure that every child under 14 is in a mainstream school, then no law should permit the child instead to be toiling in factories, fields, streets and homes. The child may help her parents to farm, cook, vend, or weave, after school hours, as long as the child is able to rest, study and play. But a well functioning school is a right which no longer should be denied to any of our children. It is in school that a child is equipped and empowered to build her own destiny.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council
The views expressed by the author are personal