Poverty and Child Labour in the Era of New Economic Policy in India

Randhir Kumar
Digvijay Kumar

Abstract Impact of New Economic Policy on Child Labour
Introduction Causes and consequences of child labour in India
Child Labour in India Constitutional Provisions for Child Labour
Inter linkage between Child Labour and Poverty Conclusion


Poverty, a social problem in India, is intrinsically embedded in the social exclusion, which has its root in the historical segmentation of caste, tribe and gender. Child labour has the structural problem, which is mainly caused by poverty besides lack of gainful employment opportunity, state negligence and illiteracy. The poverty rate among the socially excluded groups namely schedule caste and schedule tribe is much higher than their proportion in the total population and most of the child labour come from this group. The socio economic and political structure of the country has compelled them to come out from the vicious cycle of poverty. Owing to economic vulnerability, they have to put their children in wage employment activities to add to the income for their family besides non-wage activities, even if they want to send their children to school. About 1.4 million children are out-of-school in India although this figure is decreasing after the implementation of Right to Education Act 2009. The other perspective reflects that laws and government bans against child labour have limited impact and in some cases they aggravate the situation, causing poor families to end up poorer. This paper examines the relation between the poverty and child labour. It also reflects views of the state and as well as the poor people on the elimination of child labour and examines the existing programmes and acts related to child labour.

Keywords : Social exclusion, Economic vulnerability, Globalisation, Out-of-school.

1 Introduction

“Child Labour and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labour of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and the child labour to the end of time.”

Grace Abotti( C182 – Worst forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999)

According to Article 1 of the UN (United Nation) Convention on the Rights of Children, a child’ means every human being below the age of 18 years (Caesar-Leo 1999: 76). However, Article 24 of the constitution of India, the Factories Act of 1948 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 define a child as a “person below the age of 14 years”. ILO defines child labour as, ‘Work that deprives children of their childhood and dignity, which hamper their access to education and acquisition of skills, which is performed under deplorable conditions and harmful to their health and development’ (Burra 2005: 5199). According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are more than 350 million children who are economically active or involved in some economic activity around the world. Most of the theoretical literature on child labour (Van 1998) focuses on poverty and credit constraints as the main causes of child labour. Other studies are based on the impact of trade, technological changes and economic conditions on the incidence of child labour In India, parental poverty and illiteracy; lack of awareness; social and economic circumstances; lack of access to basic and meaningful quality education; high rates of adult unemployment and underemployment; cultural values of the family and society are the major factors behind generating child labour.( Bhattacharya, 2007: 3)

2 Child Labour in India

Child Labour is recognized as a serious and enormously complex social problem in India. The Census found an increase in the number of child labourers from 11.28 million in 1991 to 12.66 million in 2001. In addition, nearly 85 per cent of child labourers in India are hard-to-reach, invisible and excluded, as they work largely in the unorganised sector, both rural and urban, within the family or in household-based units. The major occupations engaging child labour are Pan, Bidi & Cigarettes (21%), Construction (17%), Domestic workers (15%) and Spinning & weaving (11%). As per census 2001, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest share (15.22%) of child labour in the country, followed by Andhra Pradesh (10.76%), Rajasthan (9.97%), Bihar (8.82%), Madhya Pradesh (8.41%), and West Bengal (6.77%). According to the Census 2001 figures, there were 1.26 crore working children in the age group of 5-14 as compared to the total child population of 25.2 crore. There were approximately 12 lakhs children working in the hazardous occupations (18 in number)/processes (65 in numbers) which are covered under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act. As per survey conducted by National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2004-05, the number of working children came down to 90.75 lakh, which has come down further to 43.53 lakh, according to the Census 2011. It shows that the efforts of the Government have borne the desired fruits. Almost all the children are involved in informal sector, and most of them do not follow the policies of social security, regulating act and wages. The census is able to gather only those who are visible in any work or factory. In fact a large proportion of the child labour do not get counted under census otherwise actual figure could have gone very high.

3 Inter linkage between Child Labour and Poverty

Poverty is the major cause of child labour, which goes on and on if no proper steps are taken by the government and society. The theories of poverty have always focused on eradication of poverty, which include child labour also.. The evolution of the concept of poverty has, however, been changing. In the 18 th and 19th century, poverty was viewed to be the result of laziness, insobriety (drunkenness) and irresponsibility. After 1950s some theories were developed which changed the outlook towards poverty.

Modernisation Theory - This theory, which developed between 1950s and 1960s, assumed that poverty was generally more or less homogeneous, and effective poverty alleviation efforts should be in a reasonable time, spread sufficiently to include most of the people. The modernisation theorists believed that the solution to mass poverty lies essentially in a capitalist strategy or rapid economic growth. It was also believed that economic growth through industrialisation would raise level of living automatically by raising the wage level and employment, which would reduce poverty as well. But this theory was heavily criticised because it promoted unequal distribution of benefits of economic development between rich and poor.

Dependency Theory (Neo-Marxist formation) – This theory became popular in 1960s and 1970s as a criticism to modernisation theory. The dependency theorists believe that the exploitation of the poor by the rich, both at domestic and international level, is the cause of underdevelopment in the third world. These theorists blame Europe and other Western countries for under development of the third world due to colonisation. They also believe in close economy in the form of promotion of domestic industries and manufacturing goods by subsidising and protecting industries, import limitations and forbidding foreign investments from owning property. It is criticised by free market economists who believe that that it will lead to corruption (state owned industries may have a higher rate of corruption than privately owned companies) and lack of competition.

Developmentalist Theory – The developmentalists reject the idea that economic growth through the spread of capitalism will itself eradicate subsistence poverty, although they accept that sustained economic growth may eventually result in the abolition of mass poverty. They advocate the provision of social services such as free education and public health by the state, progressive taxation and land reform and state sponsored agricultural projects, which provide irrigation, expertise, credit, technology and access to market. They believe these would lead to the creation of egalitarian societies.

It is widely known that the causes of child labour are basically rooted in poverty, which is created by social and economic inequality and by insufficient educational facilities. Child labour is also a cause of poverty by lowering human capital accumulation, child labour perpetuates household poverty across generations and thereby slows national economic growth and social development. Improper land reforms in some of the states also neglected rural people to come out from the vicious circle of poverty (Bhargav, 2003: 8). Most of the lower caste people either having no alternative source of livelihood or have to work in the farms of upper caste people as agricultural labourers on meagre wages. They remain dependent on upper caste people for their survival, which creates caste hierarchy and means of exploitation. The high incidences of poverty among the socially excluded groups compel them to send their children into hazardous labour works. So the condition of the predecessor generation directly affects the present or future generation.

4 Impact of New Economic Policy on Child Labour

Globalisation as a concept is very elusive, with many meanings to different people and in different contexts. But usually it means that the economy has become more global, and that developing countries are included in that global economy. It is suggested that globalisation would increase the economic interaction between different parts of the globe, which, however, is not happening in reality (Bhakhry, 2006). Globalization has exaggerated child labour. Globalization, Privatization and Liberalization (LPG) of 1991 and its consequence to human society have adversely affected the physical and mental development of children. It has acted as a device to promote child labour practice. In the capitalists dominated industrialization process, profit maximization has become the prime objective of the society. Child labour helps the employers to maximize profits at minimum cost. Globalisation allowed free flow of goods and capital across the geographical boundary. Liberalization has softened our laws related to foreign investment and industrial licensing process and privatization has reduced government’s intervention in industries (Lieten, 2003). Now government’s action is limited to only three four areas like, defence, railways and atomic energy etc. This has tempted capitalists and thus large production units and industrial corridors were developed. This has encouraged small and medium production units in and around the industrial corridors where huge number of children are found to be working in most unsafe and unhygienic condition. State has also supported these production units by declaring these corridors as Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where no public authorities dealing with child labour laws can conduct raid. This responsibility lies on Development Commissioner of SEZs who has the sole authority to enforce different labour and other laws. People from different corner of globe are residing in the township developed in these industrial corridors and most are nuclear families or both the wife and husband are working. In the name of professionalism, commercialisation of occupations takes places, where in working women of nuclear family demand maid servants. This has again, encouraged the practice of child labour (Hurrell and Ngaire, 2000). The proponents of globalization argue that, international free market will reduce the necessity of child labour with overall economic development through higher income and standard of living. But opponents say globalization will increase the opportunity of exploiting cheap labour particularly from poor country. Countries like Vietnam, Mexico and Thailand have shown a clear decline of child labour due to globalization but countries like Bolivia and Zambia have witnessed a decline in schooling and increase in child labour (Bhattacharya, 2007). According to census of 2001 report 1.26 crore working children (5-14 years) in India as compared to 1.13 crore of 1991. As can be seen in the period from 1971 to 1991 the child labour figure was declining. The decreasing trends of child labour from 1971 to 1991 started showing increasing trends (approximately12%) from 1991 to 2001, which indicates that globalization has encouraged child labour in India (IPEC/SIMPOC 2002). It is generally observed that in the pre-globalization era, children working in non hazardous work in family labour segment to learn the occupation of the family in our occupation based caste system or just to help the parents were found to be working in hazardous work in the post globalised years. Most of these children are working in wage labour segment and their labour is used for commercial production or in delivering service (Schady and Edmonds, 2011). More work of long duration is taken from them with very meagre wage. Moreover children in pre globalization era working inside the families under parental gaze are found in post globalised era to be working out the families and some time far away from their homes in the wage labour segment. These children are highly vulnerable to exploitation. After globalization movement of people from rural to urban has forced more and more children to work in wage labour segment who were earlier working in family labour segment, which is less hazardous in comparison to wage labour segment. So we may say globalization has forced more children in hazardous occupations like brick kiln work, motor garage, hotels and shops, transportations, manual loading and unloading work etc. Though large industries are not directly engaging children inside their premises due to fear of laws, high intensity of child labour is found in ancillary units, shops and establishments developed around these large units. The informalisation of work has created low wages and long hours of work, which also affect the child labour (Burra, 1995).

5 Causes and consequences of child labour in India

The causes of child labour besides poverty and unemployment are the lack of social mobilisation, irregularities in the working of the government officials and ineffective enforcement of the legal provisions to stop child labour. It may be recognised that the parental illiteracy, social apathy and tolerance of child labour do contribute to the continuance of the scourge of child labour. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor, privatization of basic services and the neo-liberal economic policies cause major sections of the population to be out of employment and without basic needs. This adversely affects children more than any other group. Entry of multi-national corporations into industry without proper mechanisms to hold them accountable has lead to the use of child labour. Lack of quality universal education has also contributed to children dropping out of school and entering the labour force. A major concern is that the actual number of child labourers goes un-detected (Basu, 1999: 13). Laws that are meant to protect children from hazardous labour are ineffective and not implemented correctly. A growing phenomenon that is observed is the use of children as domestic workers in urban areas. The condition in which children work is completely unregulated, and they are often made to work without food, and on very low wages, resembling situations of slavery. There are cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of child domestic workers. The argument for domestic work is often that families have placed their children in these homes for care and employment. According to Haq: Centre for child rights, child labour is highest among schedules tribes, Muslims, schedule castes and OBC children. The persistence of child labour is due to the inefficiency of the law, administrative system and because it benefits employers who can reduce general wage levels. Various growing concerns such as forced displacement due to development projects, Special Economic Zones; loss of jobs of parents in a slowdown economy, farmers' suicide; armed conflict and high costs of health care have pushed children out of school and into employment. Girl children are often used in domestic labour within their own homes. There is a lack of political will to actually see to the complete ban of child labour. Bonded child labour, which means the employment of a person against a loan or debt or social obligation by the family of the child or the family as a whole, is a hidden phenomenon as a majority of them are found in the informal sector. It is a form of slavery. Children who are bonded with their family or inherit a debt from their parents are often found in agricultural sector or assisting their families in brick kilns, and stone quarries. Bonded labourers in India are mostly migrant workers, which opens them up to more exploitation. Also they mostly come from low caste groups such as dalits or marginalised tribal groups. Bonded child labourers run a high risk of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse and neglect sometimes leading to death. They often are psychologically and mentally disturbed, and hardly learn any social skill or survival skill. It results in widespread poverty and declining the quality of human resources, which is a kind of asset for the country. Needless to say the prevalence of child labour does not augur well for the future generation.

6 Constitutional Provisions for Child Labour

The ILO has adopted 18 conventions and 16 recommendations with regard to child labour. Legislation relating to the regulation of child labour concentrates on four basic issues, Minimum age for employment of children, maximum period of work per day and forbidden work at night, Prohibition of certain types of work for children, and Medical examination of all working children. The constitution of India too provides for some protection to children. Article 39 (f) of the Constitution of India states that, ‘children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment’. Right against exploitation is a fundamental right, which is mentioned in Articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution of India. While Article 23(1) prohibits ‘traffic in human being and Begar and other similar forms of forced labours’ and postulates further that 'any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law’. Article 24 prohibits engagement of any child ‘below the age of 14 years in any factory or mine or employment of hazardous nature. Art-14 provides for equality in general. Art-21 guarantees right to life and liberty. Art-15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious race, caste, sex or place of birth, or of any of them. Art-15(3) provides for special protective discrimination in favour of woman and child relieving them from the moribund of formal equality. It slates that "nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children". Art- 38 enjoins the State to secure and protect, as effectively as it may, a social order in which justice- social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of national life. It enjoins, by appropriate statutory or administrative actions, that the State should minimize the inequalities in status and provide facilities and opportunities to make equal results. Art-39 provides that the children should be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and conditions of freedom and dignity; and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment. Art- 46 directs the state to promote the educational and economic interests of the women and weaker sections of the people and that it shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. The Art. 21A recognises the right to free and compulsory education of six year old children upto the age of fourteen as the fundamental right. The social justice and economic empowerment are firmly held as fundamental rights of every citizen. Article 51A clause (k) lays down a duty for the parents or guardians to provide opportunities for education to their children between the age of 6 and 14 years. Besides the constitutional provisions there are some acts like Child Labour (Prohibition of Regulation) Act. 1986, Factories Act, 1948 etc., which prohibit child labour in India.

7 Conclusion

The new economic policy had really aggravated the scourge of child labour to enable the market to make profit by providing low wages while subjecting the children to long hours of work. Due to the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE), the percentage of child labour in the population is declining, which is of course a positive sign. Both the supporters and the opponents of globalisation have their reasons to stick to their positions vis-vis child labour. According to the supporters of globalisation, the free market will reduce the necessity for child labour through higher incomes by high economic growth. Whereas according to the opponents, demand for cheap labour by market for profit, and the withdrawal of the state will pull more and more poor children and women into the labour market controlled by the capitalists. After the new economic policy the volume of child labour has been increasing till the recent years when the Right to Education has arrested this increasing trend . Besides some improvement in per capita income of some families has also contributed to such arrest.. The combination of public pressure from trade unions, political parties, NGOs and media and the growing sensitivity of companies are important factor in reducing child poverty. In order to eliminate child labour, first and foremost thing is to remove poverty particularly among the socially excluded communities, which Further, the currently employed child labour must be rescued and rehabilitated; such children must be provided vocational training and education for their better future. Owing to the implementation of the RTE, the school attendance has begun to rise and the enrolment in the primary and secondary level of schooling among both girls and boys have also started to rise, which enkindles hope that child labour in India would be declining in future.


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* Research Scholar at School of Education and School of Development Studies respectively at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.