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Poor Laws, Living Standards: Is There a Way Out for India's Child Labourers?

With a count of 8 million labourers, the abuse and exploitation cycle for the nation's minors is seemingly endless.

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Adversity-free childhood is perhaps the most desirable feature to ensure better human capital. But the persistence of child labour worldwide with a disproportionate share of it in India is quite disheartening. This alarming adversity is backed by a pronounced commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 8 with a target to eliminate all child labour by 2025, which remains far from getting realised in this decade. 

Along with an encouraging trend of the declining magnitude of this phenomenon in India over the last three decades, the nation continues to have a count of 8 million child labourers. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) calls on nations to take effective measures to eliminate it because it is the most heinous form of child abuse and exploitation, as well as a major impediment to social justice and the right to a decent life.

Despite the enactment of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1986 and 2016 and the Right to Education (2009), children in India continue to remain extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, illiteracy, poor physical and mental health experiencing a failed childhood that compromises the future quality of human capital.

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Child Labour in India: Some Numbers

The pride of India’s populous feature coexists with the largest share of child labourers. India is home to a magnitude of child labourers that exceeds the population size of a few nations like Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland which rank at the top with respect to human development.

According to a report by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation and the 2011 census projections, India will have 7.8 million child labourers in 2023 comprising a male-female share of 57 percent  and 43 percent respectively. Despite a decline in the annual child labour rate in 2001-11 (-2.01 percent) being higher than the same in 1991-2001 (1.16 percent) and 1981-91 (-1.88 percent), India continues to have a reasonable count of child labour.

The absence of the 2021 census serves as a handicap in obtaining an accurate count of child labourers that otherwise projected based on the 2011 census depicts a significant regional variation within the nation.

Shrinking Nationally and Rising in the Subnational Scene

The encouraging rate of decline in the prevalence of child labour does not qualify at the sub-national level with an increasing share in select states like Kerala (5.68 percent), Himachal Pradesh (1.62 percent), Uttarakhand (1.62 percent), and Uttar Pradesh (1.22 percent) where the magnitude of child labour increased significantly between 2001 and 2011.

On the contrary, the states such as Telangana (-7.22 percent), Haryana (-6.6 percent), Karnataka (-6.47 percent), Andhra Pradesh (-6.41 percent), West Bengal (-4.34 percent), Jammu Kashmir (-4.15 percent), Madhya Pradesh (-4.11 percent), and Rajasthan (-3.90 percent) registered a massive decline during the same period. In absolute count, Uttar Pradesh (2.1 million), Bihar (1.01 million) and Rajasthan (0.8 million) had the greater count vis-à-vis  Kerala (0.04 million), Delhi (0.03) million with the least count in 2011. By 2025, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand will have the highest rates of child labour. 

The estimated number of children working in 2025 will amount to 74.3 lakh of which 60.2 lakh will be shared by seven states. As a result, if these states are given special focus in implementing measures to end child labour, the incidence of child labour in India could be minimised, if not eliminated.

The estimates of district-level projection observe that districts such as Mahe, Lakshadweep, Lahul and Spiti, Diu, Idduki, North & Middle Andaman, Lohit, Kollam, and New Delhi remain as the top most vulnerable district in terms of rising prevalence of child labour while Lakhimpur, Krishna, Mahendragarh, Lalitpur, Doda, Nirmal, Kolhapur, Karauli, Nanded, and Lucknow are top most district shrinking incidence of child labour. Districts with the highest concentrations of child labour, in terms of absolute numbers, include Allahabad, Ghaziabad, Bareilly, Kurukshetra, South Twenty Pargana, Patna, Idduki, Bangalore, Navsari, and Alwar.

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Poverty Cycle and Multidimensional Deprivation

Child labour is an essential manifestation of poverty that traps children in a vicious cycle of poverty. While child labour frequently appears in low-income households, it regenerates itself resulting in the widespread integrational transmission of poverty. Owing to impoverishment, a child enters the workforce with the implications for another generation compromised on adequate skills, literacy, competence, and overall well-being.

It limits a child's well-being in terms of education, physical and mental health, social and economic opportunity, and deprivation in multiple facets in later life. It leads to multidimensional deprivation, marginalisation, and exploitation with explicit violation of children's fundamental rights to equal opportunities, social justice, and a decent life.

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Right to Education: A Failure in Implementation

The Right to Education Act (RTE), an Act of the Indian Parliament, guarantees children between the ages of 6 and 14 the right to free and compulsory education under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution.  The fundamental purpose of this act is to universalise child schooling with no out-of-school children irrespective of the marginalised/impoverished status of the household to which they belong.

However, it appears that the RTE Act fails to prevail on grounds that resulted in the staggering number of child labourers. This act is complemented by numerous schemes of free provisioning like clothing, food and learning aids that fail in implementation that not only sustains child labour but also violates their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.

While we claim advances in educational attainment at large, a whole lot of children denied basic education need not be overlooked. Hence sustained child labour can partially be blamed on the failure of the implementation of the RTE Act and it has its own derivative on the failure to turn the demographic dividend into an opportunity.

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The Toothless Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act

In this platinum decade of India’s independence, the inability to ensure a decent childhood does reflect the dysfunctional child labour laws, focusing only on the "prohibition" and "regulation" of child labour rather than advancing the country's fundamental goals of eliminating child labour.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, of 2016, is undoubtedly a later thought that comes 15 years after the right to elementary education and 6 years after the RTE Act. Opposed to the 1986 Child Labour Act, the new Child Labour Act of 2016 expressly prohibits children from engaging in any form of labour that comes in conflict with their right to education.

This legislation, however, is ambiguous in two ways. First, there is no stated minimum age below which children are not entitled to work, not even in exempted sectors. Second, there is no prohibition on employment in hazardous occupations or processes carried out as part of family work. Hence, the child labour law does have a serious conflict with the RTE Act, and the amendment appears to be one step forward with two steps back.

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 Identification, Intervention, and Implementation

A genuine inclination without serious intervention sustains child labour in India. Although the nation has been partially successful in arresting its growth, a sizeable magnitude of this evil persists to the tune of outnumbering the population size of many other nations. A nation that cannot guarantee decent childhood for its children is a failed nation and India with a count of 8 million children denied of their fundamental rights needs multi-sectoral intervention to address this concern.

Such intervention needs a comprehensive identification of these vulnerable children as well as their parentage/household to resolve this menace in a war-footing manner. A perfect prescription lies in three Is - identification, intervention and implementation. Vouching for a decent childhood for all children ensures ideal future citizenship for the nation.

(Balhasan Ali is a Senior Research Fellow at The International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. Dr Udaya Shankar Mishra is a professor of International Institute for Population Sciences, (Mumbai). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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