Child Labor – A Non-negotiable Evil

Despite several Constitutional provisions and laws that safeguard the rights of all children, India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labourers in the world. If one were to believe Government’s estimates, there are about 1.20 crore economically active children below the age of fourteen. However Non-Governmental sources estimate a staggering 6 crore children engaged as labourers across the country. Almost 70 percent of these children work in the agricultural sector, while the rest continue to languish in the informal & unorganized sectors like garment, embroidery, carpet weaving, glass bangles, brass ware, shellac jewelry, sporting goods, leather, plastic goods, stone quarries, mica & coal mining, tea plantation, brick kilns, construction sites, roadside restaurants and domestic work.
India is the breeding ground for the worst forms of child labour. At least one crore or one out of every six child labourers is trapped in slavery as bonded labourer. Tens of thousands of children are trafficked from one state to another on tall claims and false hopes of a decent life. Several others are trafficked across the national borders. India is known to be a destination for large number of Nepalese and Bangladeshi children. Child prostitution, child marriages, “Devdasis”, forced amputation and beggary, children misused or abused by militant groups are some of the many forms of contemporary slavery that widely persist.
The push factors behind this social evil include abject poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness, gullibility of parents, child un-friendly mindset prevailing in the communities, socio-cultural discrimination, gender bias, poor outreach of legal safeguarding & ensuing development, absence of or poor education facilities, State’s incapability to effectively handle natural disasters like flood, earthquakes droughts & famines, development disasters like deforestation, mining and displacement are largely responsible for children falling prey to child labour. On the other hand, the insatiable greed on the part of employers who always scout for vulnerable, docile and cheap workforce, prevalence of corruption and apathy among the law enforcement agencies coupled with connivance between traffickers and employers are some of the key pull factors resulting in child labour.
Children are preferred over adults because they are unable to unionize, they do not demand decent work and never do they retort to strikes despite all sorts of abuses and exploitation. We should remember that each child is employed at the cost of an adult’s job. India has 6 crore child labourers and about 6.5 crore unemployed adults. Several studies have revealed that most of the jobless adults are the very parents of full time child labourers. This is a vicious circle. No country could ever possibly solve the problem of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy without eliminating child labour.
Globalization, privatization and liberalization have fuelled the massive demand for cheap and docile labour in production supply chains. Similarly the ever-expanding middle class is always on a watch out for a poor and docile child to employ them as domestic help for looking after their own children besides performing the usual household chores without a whimper.
A common notion that prevails is that poverty is the root cause of child labour, but it is a half baked truth because the fact of the matter is, that child labour creates and perpetuates intergenerational poverty. Child labourers are cursed to reel under poverty for the rest of their lives. In most cases, inhuman working conditions severely affect children’s tender organs thereby drifting them towards occupational diseases. Children engaged in agriculture are exposed to pesticides, insecticides and heavy machinery. Such children gradually acquire incurable ailments and often meet with accidents that render them physically crippled. Many children handling toxic chemicals in factories and workshops are susceptible to similar risks. Children producing fire crackers to amuse and entertain others more often than not meet with devastating accidents. Sivakasi, Virudhunagar and Sattur are infamous for such accidents. Similarly, children working in stone quarries and mines are diagnosed with tuberculosis and silicosis. Thousands others are compelled to work under inhuman conditions in glass bangle factories of Firozabad and brass & metal workshops in Moradabad, Aligarh & Delhi only to burn their lungs and little fingers.
I have personally come across thousands of cases where children weaving carpets in Mirzapur – Bhadohi belt were diagnosed with chronic lung diseases that cut their lives short, unfulfilling their dream to sit on the plush carpets that they produce. Children stitching foot balls and other sporting goods seldom get an opportunity to play with them. Those slogging endlessly in garment sweatshops never get to see their mothers and sisters adorning the beautifully and intricately embellished ensembles produced by them. What a shame!!!
Prevalence of child labour is nothing short of utter disrespect not only towards the Constitution but also towards all the International Declarations, Treaties and Conventions that have been promulgated in the past. Child labour and slavery are worst of human rights’ violation. It is a crime and a social stigma. Child labour is the biggest obstacle in the way of education and development. It is a slap across the face of civilizations, cultures and religions. Child labour is an evidence of serious lack of political will and social concern. Child labour denies freedom, justice, dignity, equal opportunities and fulfilled childhood simultaneously endangering child’s present and future.
India has several legislative provisions aimed towards the children. There is a specific law; Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 which is objectionable and incomplete. It does not prohibit all forms of child labour thereby posing serious contradiction to the recently passed Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 which calls for compulsory schooling for all children up to the age of 14 years. How can one law be in contravention to the other law that allows children to remain at work places instead of classrooms???Kailash Satyarthi
* Author is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, founding President of Global Campaign for Education and Chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour. He is world’s foremost leader in the fight against child and bonded labour. He is a distinguished social activist and has freed thousands of bonded and child labourers.