India has the shameful record of having the most number of working children in the world. Though the government likes to believe that there are two million children employed in hazardous industries and occupation, unofficial estimates put the figure at 100 million. In the 1991 census, child labour was counted at 11.28 million, while the International Labour Organization estimated it at 23.2 million.
The chief cause of child labour is poverty. Each child that is born into a poor family is considered a helping hand, someone who can augment the family income. Industries too readily take on child labour as they come cheap and are easy to command. They are often made to work under harsh conditions with long hours with little remuneration or care.
The second cause is that of lack of educational opportunities. There are too many children and too few schools. The rural areas are particularly neglected with few primary schools. Uneducated parents often consider it more prudent to make their children work rather than send them to school. This is particularly true for the girl child. She is considered a liability since not only do they have to collect dowry for her marriage, but because they do not see her as someone contributing to the family kitty.
Certain states did start incentive measures like the mid day meal scheme and paying stipends to families who send their children to school. However, these schemes were fraught with implementation difficulties and did not succeed too well. The government had also proposed making non-attending of schools by children a legal offence for parents. But practical difficulties are too many to make such a law possible.
The third cause is that of bonded labourer. Poverty often drives poor families to borrow. These loans are mostly for unproductive purposes like marriage or sickness. Their poor incomes leave them with no choice but to repay their debts through labour. Sometimes the burden of these loans and the interest thereon are so heavy that more than one generation of a family has to work in bond to be free.
Tragic though it sounds the practice of pledging an unborn child is still prevalent in certain parts of India. In 1976, the government did attempt to abolish bonded labour system by passing the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act. However, the practice remains due to ignorance, indifference and difficulty in the implementation of the Act.
Though the government has formulated several laws to protect the child labour, in reality very little happens. Children are still working in hazardous conditions in difficult conditions like in the cracker factories of Sivakasi, in mining industries and other dangerous chemical factories. The government provides little by way of benefits or protection to these little workers.
Indians are so accustomed to child labour that it does not hurt even the most educated among us to hire a child as domestic help or to see little boys polishing shoes by the roadside.
The sad story of child labour speaks of lost childhood, lost education and opportunities. We need to change these attitudes and play a more active role not only at the administrative level but also at the individual level to eliminate the sad existence of child labour.