By: Sourya Banerjee, (Founder and CEO, For The Sake Of Argument)

“Look into their innocent eyes,

Do you see the scars; hear the cries.

The hands that were meant to play,

Might never again, see the light of day.

Their soul is torn, broken and crying,

Rise and see; our future is dying.”

–          Anon


Indeed, India has come a long way since independence in 1947 with the abolition of child labor, access to compulsory education for children, abolition of child marriages, juvenile justice and so on. The fight against the evils in the society has never been easy. India is infamous for the worst possible implementation of the best possible laws.

Enforcement, in a vast country like India, is never supposed to be easy but the complete disregard with which the executive agencies let the law of the land to be violated is shocking. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 received a lot of applause initially, but the loopholes in it are glaring. Child Labor Abolition Act was initially enacted in the year 1986 but the problems which this law addresses still persist.

It is true that, India has made some significant commitments towards ensuring the basic rights of children and the progress is well recorded – infant mortality rates are down, child survival is up, literacy rates have improved and school dropout rates have fallen. But the issue of child rights in India is still caught up between legal and policy commitments to children on the one hand, and the fallout of the process of globalisation on the other. The negative fallout is glaringly visible – children are being deprived of even the scarce social benefits once available; they are displaced by forced and economic migration increasing the number of children subsisting on the streets; more and more children are being trafficked within and across borders; and rising numbers of children are engaged in part- or full-time labour.

With more than one-third of its population below 18 years of age, India has the largest young population in the world. Even a small percentage constitutes an enormous population and the impact, either good or bad, is, therefore, very large. The situation in India is extremely poor. Even with numerous legislations to protect children’s interests the ground realities are staggeringly bad:

  • Only 35% of births are registered, impacting name and nationality.
  • 1 out of 16 children die before they attain the age of 1, and 1 out of 11 die before they are 5 years old.
  • 35% of the developing world’s low-birth-weight babies are born in India.
  • 40% of child malnutrition in the developing world is recorded in India.
  • The declining number of girls in the 0-6 age-group is a cause for alarm. For every 1,000 boys there are only 927 females — even less in some places.
  • Out of every 100 children, 19 continue to be out of school.
  • Of every 100 children who enroll, 70 drop out by the time they reach the secondary level.
  • Of every 100 children who drop out of school, 66 are girls.
  • 65% of girls in India are married by the age of 18 and become mothers soon after.
  • India is home to the highest number of child labourers in the world.
  • India has the world’s largest number of sexually abused children, with a child below 16 raped every 155th minute, a child below 10 every 13th hour, and at least one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point in time.

Child labour and the right to education: A contradiction

India has the highest number of child labourers in the world. Census reports clearly point to an increase in the number of child labourers in the country, from 11.28 million in 1991 to 12.59 million in 2001. Reports from the M V Foundation in Andhra Pradesh reveal that nearly 400,000 children, mostly girls between 7 and 14 years of age, toil for 14-16 hours a day in cotton seed production across the country. Ninety percent of them are employed in Andhra Pradesh alone. According to Yamina de Laet of the International Chemical, Energy and Mine Workers’ federation (ICEM), children aged 6-14 years represent 40% of the labour force in the precious-stone-cutting sector.

Although the number of children employed in the agricultural sector, in domestic work, roadside restaurants, sweetmeat shops, automobile mechanic units, rice mills, Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) outlets and most such sectors considered to be ‘non-hazardous’ is unknown, more and more children are entering the labour force and are being exploited by their employers.

The existing law on child labour that allows children to work in occupations that are not part of the schedule of occupations that are considered harmful to children contradicts the right of every child to free and compulsory education. And yet no attempt is made to resolve this contradiction. How can children be at work and at school at the same time? Surely this means that any attempt to give them access to education will be second-rate, parallel non-formal education!

It will be completely untrue and baseless to comment that the governments were uninterested or useless when it came to protecting the rights of children. But the fact remains that no government on its own can achieve any goal. The people of Hindustan have to take the responsibility of supporting and assisting the government in eradicating child labour.

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