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Child labour numbers – missing the real story

Mar 14, 2013

India’s ‘nowhere’ children find no space in the numbers government agencies collect for child labourers, giving credence to their collective nomenclature.

Responding to a question in India’s Parliament, Kodikunnil Suresh, India’s Minister for Labour and Employment claimed that the number of child labourers in the country has come down by five million between 2004-05 and 2009-10.

Minister Suresh attributed these numbers to the data available through National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and claimed this was a result of the government’s multi-pronged strategy that comprises of statutory and legislative measures, rescue and rehabilitation, universal primary education along with social protection, poverty alleviation and employment generation.

Sections in civil society feel that the Minister’s rather impressive claim is based on a flawed understanding of where and how children work in India.

They point out that the minister’s claims fly in the face of report of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a statutory body mandated to look into child rights in India. NCPCR has earlier pointed out to the misrepresentation that official figures, including the NSSO figures quoted by the Minister, in 2008. This NCPR report brings attention to the very definition of child labour, which needs to be as inclusive as possible, for us to be able to properly account for the extent of child labour in the country.

Civil society actors also point to the issue of children falling in a grey area, belonging to a category now defined as nowhere children – of whom there are 75 million in the country, according to NCPCR. NCPCR argues that nowhere children are most likely to be active in other more discrete forms of labour – working on a family farm, caring for younger siblings, doing household chores while the parents go out to earn or assisting parents in earning their household’s monthly income – all hidden forms of labour, leaving the children unaccounted for.

According to NCPCR, “irrespective of whether the child is idle, engaged in household chores or labouring as a family member, she is educationally deprived and contributes to the labour pool.”

Save the Children (SC), a child rights organisation, argues that by using NSSO data that puts the number of child labourers at five million, the minister has ignored the present discourse on nowhere children.

India, home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s children, shoulders the largest number of children actively engaged in work.

According to Thomas Chandy, SC’s CEO, the government’s figures on child labour provided by Minister Kodikunnil Suresh “are a reflection of the Minister’s preferred definition of child labour, which to our mind, doesn’t capture the extent of child labour in India”.

Chandy feels that the Minister should consider once again not only the nature of child labour in the country which is largely concentrated in the informal sector – small businesses like bidi rolling and zari embroidery – where it can’t be registered or monitored but also reconsider the steps that he claims that the government has taken to address child labour.

The issues raised by the child rights organisation point to the need for policy coherence between the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (CLPRA) and Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education. The former outlaws child labour below the age of 14 years of age in specific “hazardous” sectors while leaving a broad swathe of “unhazardous” sectors unregulated, which creates a policy environment where children are both allowed to labour and legally mandated to attend school.

Agriculture that has been deemed to be an unhazardous sector is in fact the largest employer of child labourers in the country, and with its use of strong chemicals, dangerous machinery and long hours constitutes a legal oversight in terms of its categorisation, Chandy points out.

“A proposed Bill that amends CLPRA has been tabled in Parliament,” according to Chandy, which he impresses, “needs to be urgently passed and implemented to give all children the right to attend free and compulsory education in India.”

Also read:
Is child labour declining in India?

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