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Is child labour declining in India?

Mar 11, 2013

While the minister has claimed that child labour has actually reduced, civil society activists say that the figures the government is doling out might not be exact.

Indian minister for Labour and Employment, Kodikunnil Suresh today informed Parliament’s Lower House that child labour in the country has shown a declining trend.

Suresh was replying to a question raised in Lok Sabha, Parliament’s lower house.

He quoted a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey undertaken during 2009-10 that revealed that working children in India are estimated at 4.984 million. This, he argued, reflected a declining trend.

Yet, the minister said, in a survey conducted by NSSO in 2004-05, the numbers of working children were estimated at 9.07 million – a drop of over four million in the space of five years.

“With the persistent effort of the government through implementation of different schemes the number of child labour in the country has been reduced considerably,” the minister said in Parliament, and added, “Existing legislation and policy framed by the Government have yielded positive results.”

The minister quoted the country’s census of 2001 according to which the total number of working children aged between 5 and 14 years was 12.6 million. Of these, the minister said, approximately 1.2 million children were working in the hazardous occupations/processes covered under Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

“Elimination of child labour is an area of great concern and (the) Government of India is committed to address the issue,” the minister said.

He however stressed that it was not so simple to eliminate child labour.

“Considering the magnitude and nature of problem Government is following a multi-pronged strategy to tackle the problem of child labour,’ he said. “It comprises of statutory and legislative measures, rescue and rehabilitation, universal primary education along with social protection, poverty alleviation and employment generation. The objective is to create an environment where families are not compelled to send their children to work,” the minister said.

While the minister seemed content with the role of the government, civil society activists have come down heavily on the government for not doing enough to eliminate child labour.

India is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Presenting a point of view different from the minister’s, Kailash Satyarthi of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a leading child rights organisation working towards eliminating child labour argued, “They have collected only 75,000 samples for the survey. In a country like India it is very small. Secondly, the government is claiming that the number of child labourers might have declined because the school enrolment rates have gone very high. This is not true.”

Satyarthi reasoned thus: BBA has rescued around 1,100 children from bounded labour in the past year. The rescue comes from raids conducted with help from the police and the judiciary. This figure of 1,100 is an official figure because of the role of the police and judges, he argues. Of these 1,100, Satyarthi says, more than 800 were enrolled in schools in their respective villages.

“You see, children who are already enrolled in schools are still trapped in bonded labour. Children enrolled in schools in states like Bihar are working in cities like Delhi. This is how data are manipulated,” he said. “On paper they are already in schools whereas the reality is totally different. So, we don’t trust this survey at all”, Satyarthi said.

India has legislated that education is the right of a child. The country passed a law in 2010 according to which children between five and 14 years of age should be in school, not at work. A mid-day meal scheme, entailing food to be served in school is meant to ensure that children do not drop out.

However, going by the example Satyarthi offers, it seems that child labour persists despite mid-day meals and enrollments in distant villages only suggest that the money spent on meals does not get served to the children.

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