India has the dubious distinction of hosting the largest number of child labourers in the world. The 2011 census puts the number at 4.35 million working children in the five to 14 age-bracket. With an estimated 23 percent of its 1.2 billion people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day, it is perhaps only natural that parents will send their children out to earn in a desperate bid to keep the family alive.
From the posh homes of Delhi to Monsanto’s cotton fields in southern Andhra Pradesh, the sandstone quarries of Rajasthan to the firecracker factories in Sivakasi in southern Tamil Nadu, children toil in restaurants, agricultural fields, hazardous glass and fireworks factories, brick kilns and construction and carpet-making industries across swathes of India. The child labourers can also be found vending food, repairing vehicles and tyres, scavenging, rag picking, shoe shining, car-washing and begging. Small factories and businesses are often guilty of employing these kids and depriving millions of them of their childhood, freedom and education. The children are usually poorly paid, underfed and are often beaten, say studies. According to the annual report of the Department of Labour, Indian children are exploited in the worst possible way. Those in the agriculture sector are made to carry heavy loads and sprinkle harmful pesticides on crops. One report, ‘Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labour in India’s Hand-made Carpet Sector’, documents over 3,200 cases across nine states in India and quotes several hundred cases each of forced labour at carpet factories run by exporters who ship these rugs to retail stores in the U.S.
According to a sample survey conducted in 16 factories across Sivakasi covering 4,181 children, 3,323 (79.48 percent) were found to be illiterate; 474 children (11.34 percent) were educated up to primary school level. Dropouts were 384 (9.2 percrent). Asthma and tuberculosis were prevalent among 90 percent of those involved in gunpowder filling and directly in contact with the chemical ingredients of crackers and matches. These workers, says the survey, are usually not given any protective gear and work with hazardous chemicals such as sulphur, aluminium powder and gun powder
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as “a violation of fundamental human rights”, a menace that impairs children’s development, potentially leading to lifelong physical or psychological damage. Indian Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has been demanding a complete ban on every kind of child labour in India for kids up to 14 years. The activist says that the state and society have failed children, making them give up their childhood and education. “Child slavery is a crime against humanity. Humanity itself is at stake here,” Satyarthi says.
The Indian government banned child labour in 2012, but the ban’s implementation has been patchy, leading activists to pressure governments to strengthen legislation. Satyarthi is seeking the early passage of the pending legislation against child labour, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, which could make employment of children below 14 years in any occupation illegal. The bill is also in sync with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009, which guarantees free education to kids up to 14 years. According to a recent UNESCO report, India has an estimated 1.4 million out-of-school children between the ages of six and 11 years, a staggering number that experts say could be reduced by strengthening child labour laws. Many Indian non-profits have come up to fight against child labour but they admit that until the government takes real initiative, the situation will remain dismal. After the 86th Amendment of the Indian Constitution in 2002, the provision for free and compulsory education for the age group of six to 14 years has been included as a fundamental right under Article 21A. Activists say this needs to be implemented stringently by the government. “The Child Labour Act is an outdated law, which recognises only those under 14 as children and covers only hazardous work. We need legislation that’s more nuanced as well as more rigorous and comprehensive.”
“While the passage of the new law will give children’s rights a huge boost, child labour cannot be successfully uprooted without focussing on the socio-economic condition of the kids’ families, which force them to send their children out to work,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research.