Child Labour: Dealing with the Reality

India has 13 million child labourers. Unofficial sources cite 100 million. 75% of them work in hazardous conditions, for 18 hours every day, only to earn Rs 15 as their daily wage. Children are sold by their parents for as little as Rs. 1000. Most of these children belong to the underprivileged sections of society, in the lower socio-economic strata comprising of dalits, adivasis, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Until a proposed amendment made in 2012 , the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 did not ban child labour, merely regulating their work conditions in industry. Children in the age group of 15-18 were ignored in legislation. Judicial statements, policies and schemes made for the welfare of children are still not being implemented efficiently, with ineffective coordination between the actors and institutions involved, and inadequate monitoring, transparency and accountability in the process. The punishment for violators is a fine of a mere Rs. 50,000 and/or a jail term of 3 year, not deterring in any way those who profit millions from employing children as labourers, instead of adults. Yet, there is hope, through the passionate efforts of civil society, the conscientious hearts in the corporate sector as well as the dedicated few in the local bureaucracy. What is irrefutably essential is a change in the mindset of society, a strong belief that the situation can be improved, if only each person takes a small step towards helping those who need it most.

The issue of child labour is tackled through this article in the hope of reawakening societal empathy to the cause. Some may switch to another more interesting topic, yet there will be a few who pause to glance through this one. The persistence of child labour is perplexing. Is human life a commodity to be bought and sold? True, slavery and child labour are a centuries old phenomenon. But doesn’t today’s world take pride in upholding human rights, social equity and justice? How does one understand the appalling existence of child labourers in this backdrop? Has contemporary society become so apathetic, that it ignores the plight of the poor, while themselves being content in driving luxury cars, going to the latest 5 star restaurant and living in multiple apartments and bungalows for one family? Instead of celebrating difference, why do people in parts of our country still insist on not allowing those belonging to a particular community to pursue employment of their choice, not determined by their birth? Why gender is still a factor to the continuance of poverty, with women being relegated to perform household chores, instead of being offered opportunities of education the same as men?

This article argues that there is something fundamentally wrong with the moral values in our society. It’s merely easier to be self – interested, as opposed to working for the welfare of a community. Social mindsets in our country date back centuries, with caste, class, religion, gender and region being the cause for conflict and division, not celebration of diversity. This has a direct bearing on the continuance of child labour, as there is a clear socio-economic discrimination against those belonging to particular communities. The benefits offered by liberalism, growth and development seem mysteriously to affect those already well-off in society, ignoring those living below the poverty line. Reification of commodities and material goods and comfort seem to be the norm, while the current poverty line remains abysmally low, not sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living for any human being. On what basis are top down policy solutions offered by those in the business of protecting the interests of the poorest sections of society, when these supposed experts rarely take the trouble of visiting a village, let alone staying in one, being satisfied instead with scholarly articles written by their elitist colleagues who perpetuate more of the same? Foucault, in ‘Power, Knowledge and Truth’ had written that people ought to question everything. Norm dynamics shows us how easy it is for a particular ideology to perpetuate in the minds of the masses, with few realizing the manner in which their thoughts are being modified in a subtle manner. It is indeed possible to assert that societal apathy, and an unwillingness to break out of the hegemonic construct of a status quo-ist society is the one of the direct causes of child labour.

Deciphering the Roots of Child Labour

Grounds for child labour are intense poverty, lack of quality education, compulsion to work for survival as well as social dimensions of caste and gender. These issues are multifaceted, operating simultaneously at several levels. A brief glance at the facts gives us the enormity of the bleak situation in the country: 60 million children below age 6 live below the poverty line in India . 58% children don’t complete primary schools, 90% don’t complete school at all.  Child Labor is highest among Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, Muslims and OBC children, validated by the HAQ Centre for Child Rights.  Caste remains an important barrier preventing children from gaining access to opportunities of education, and escaping their cycle of debt. They are left with no option but to work for survival. Families of these children are offered no social and financial protection mechanisms to improve their quality of life.

As per Child line India, in 2001, 12.67 million child workers were in the 5 to 14 age group; by 2010, this number became 12.62 million; on adding the 15-19 age groups the statistics become 26.28 million.  This implies that 11% of India’s workforce is Child Labor and 1 in every 10 workers is a child!  However, unofficial figures cite 100 million child laborers!

The International Labour Organization defines Child Labour as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development.  The Indian Government adheres to this definition, by guaranteeing rights of the child in its Constitution, upholding Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 and punishing those who indulge in this shameful crime. However, the effectiveness for employers employing children as labor is weak as from the 13, 60,117 inspections that have been carried out since 1986; 49,092 prosecutions have been launched and only 4,774 employers have been convicted.  The newly proposed deterrent is a maximum jail term of 3 years, along with a fine of Rs. 50,000, while earlier; the prison punishment was 1 year or a fine of Rs. 20,000. 

While India has not ratified ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment or ILO Convention 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labor,  leading to criticisms and censure on global fora on child labor, it has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. A child in India is under 14 years of age, though by law, s/he is an adult only after turning 18, the missed terminology between 15-18 filled by the word ‘adolescents’ in the proposed amendment to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. The modified list on banned forms of child labor now includes domestic work as well. Child laborers could be in the organized sector in industries dealing with ‘beedi’, glass, firework, precious stone polishing; the unorganized sector working at ‘dhabas’, newspaper vendors, construction, domestic work or self-employed as rag pickers or street children. They may also be categorized as employed in the rural sector in agriculture, or in the urban areas within manufacturing and services. 

Work becomes the only option for families and children who struggle to survive, as a means of earning necessary wages. The children often have no incentive to attend school, even if they have the time or inclination to do so, as government sponsored education at the primary level is ineffective, comprising of teachers on pay roll who do not show up to teach as there is no accountability to the performance of the teachers. In addition, the loss of income incurred by the family that would have otherwise sent the child to school is not compensated. Furthermore, few mechanisms exist to fulfil basic necessities of children of migrant workers. While vocational training and part time education exist in policy to address these concerns, there is little impact on the ground. Human life becomes a commodity to be bought and sold, with no thought of dignity, value, freedom and capability of life. The proposed amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, offers hope to child workers in society, as unlike the current version of the Act, the amendment demands a complete ban of children till age 14 working. The prevailing legislation merely bans their work in hazardous industry, while regulating work hours in non-hazardous ones.

The issue of the unorganized sector being hard to reach is also a cause for persistence of child labor as 85% of child laborers in India are hard to reach, invisible and excluded- both in rural and urban areas. As a result, these nowhere children are not receptors of policies to remove them from labor. 

Social Construct and Costs of Child Labor

Child labour is exploitative in nature and is a detriment to the development of our human resources. Our huge demographic dividend will be wasted potential unless the state acts tough to crack down on labour laws. Banning child labor legitimizes punishment, and makes it an activity to be censored. However, in this process, it is crucial to understand the varying contexts in which this phenomenon occurs. Some countries might offer greater social protection and enhanced quality of education to take into account the needs of the families concerned, leading to reduced instances of child labor. While for countries like India, child labor is an ugly reality, which continues unabated and will take time to be modified. Employers prefer children over adults as they don’t need to be paid adult wages, being outside the purview of law. Exploitation of the young becomes relatively easy, as the children themselves have no option but to work in order to earn a few rupees, as opposed to not contributing to their family income at all. Some children run away from the miserable poverty ridden families, others are orphans. However, this sustains an illicit economy wherein the money earned by the rogue employers is not transferred into the legal financial system, creating a massive bulk of wealth used to enrich the coffers of the culprits, instead of being used for the welfare of the underprivileged sections of society. The following provides an explanation of the vicious cycle sustaining child labor: 

Childhood as Social Construct

Piyush Antony and V Gayathri argue that childhood itself is a social construct varying across time and space.  The conception of childhood in the Western countries is different from that in the East, and also varying regions. Developed countries offer more social welfare protection till the child completes his/her schooling, while in developing countries, this may not happen, as the country either does not have adequate finances, or ineffective policy implementation, leading to high levels of social inequality, as a result of which a child in the lower economic strata has to act as an extra pair of hands for the family. Acceptance of the inevitability of the child to both work and study is now reflected in global policy making, wherein the earlier ILO conventions simply barred children from working, unaware of the reality on the ground. The international community is now appreciative of the fact that the reasons and forms in which child labor continues are unique to each region and community. It thus becomes crucial for the global leaders and regimes to associate with regional partners and national coalitions to understand and deal with this issue based on the intricacies of each context. For instance, while India too has banned child labor, the practice continues due to the absence of any other viable alternative. Child Labor persists because it is socially reproduced- caste remains a crucial factor, with people belonging to disadvantaged families unable to live a dignified life and fulfill their potential due to a hegemonic social structure.  The attitude of education being a prerogative of some; work a destined vocation for others is quite ubiquitous. 

Cost of Child Labor

Children furthermore provide cheap labor for employers, leading to them being chosen for work, over their adult counterparts. To understand the economic ramifications of the scourge, Bachpan Bachao Andolan did a study keeping the number of laborers and the average numbers of days constant, the wages paid to the child were deducted from the minimum wage guaranteed to an adult for two hundred days. It was found that the Indian economy suffers a loss of Rs. 1, 20,000 crores, as this illicit money does not contribute to the development & creation of social infrastructure in the country for the welfare of children, proving that corruption, black money and child labor sustain each other. 

The cost must be considered not only in terms of economic loss, but also the loss of childhood itself. These children grow up illiterate, leading to reduced opportunities in the world. The thought of a vast majority of the current young generation growing up working in deplorable conditions, instead of experiencing the innocent pleasures of a carefree upbringing with access to a good standard of living, should be enough to stir the guilty conscience of the apathetic society we live in today. 

Strategies to Identify and Resolve the Menace

State and non-state actors adopt varying strategies to identify and resolve the problem. State actors include constitutional provisions, legislations, judicial activism, policies and schemes, as well as the agencies and institutions responsible for their administration. Non- state actors include non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society networks. An elaboration of these is as follows:


Constitutional provisions include Article 21 (A) guaranteeing Right to Education, which says that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children between the age of 6 to 14 years in such a manner as the State, by law, may determine; Article 24 which assures Prohibition of Employment of Children in Factories asserting that no child below the age fourteen years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment; and Article 39 mentions that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength.  However, successful implementation of legislations is a rarity, as there is insufficient collaboration between the agencies and individuals involved in enacting the guidelines and processes related to abolishing child labor. The Department of Education, Ministry of Women & Child Development, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Labor & Employment must coordinate so that existing schemes to remove poverty, ensure education and guarantee adult employment are effectively implemented to provide a safe and healthy childhood to the next generation of children.


The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 led to an amendment in the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, as it was only after the RTE came in, that education was made compulsory for children till 14 years. Recent Amendments to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act also ban employment of children up to 14 years for commercial purposes in all industries, homes or on farms. Those between 14 and 18 years of age will be termed “adolescents” and their employment in mines, chemical, paint, explosives or other hazardous industries will be prohibited. The existing law only bans employment of children below 14 in hazardous industries and regulates their work in non-hazardous ones.  


MC Mehta vs the State of Tamil Nadu laid an important judicial verdict wherein the Supreme Court of India on 10 Dec 1996 declared that employers illegally employing children must pay Rs. 20,000 into a fund known as the “Child Labor Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund” to be used only for the benefit of that child. The court also ordered the government to ‘(a) provide employment for an adult member of every family with a child who is employed in a factory or mine or other hazardous work or, if not possible to provide an adult family member with a job, (b) contribute Rs. 5,000 to the Child Labor Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund for each child employed in a factory or mine or other hazardous employment. Adults who are offered jobs in this way would also have a duty to ensure that their children entered full-time education and did not continue to work.’ 

Policies and Schemes

The National Child Labor Policy, 1987 is crucial in this regard, with legislative action plans and general development programmes for the benefit of families of the children and project based action plans in areas of high concentration of child labor. The latest in this vein is the National Policy for Children, 2013 which lays down specific provisions against child labor, by committing to take ‘special protection measures to secure the rights and entitlements of children, in need of special protection, characterized by their specific social, economic and geo-political situations, including their need for rehabilitation and reintegration, in particular, but not limited to children affected by migration, displacement, communal or sectarian violence, civil unrest, disasters and calamities, street children, children of sex workers, children forced into communal or sectarian violence, civil unrest, disasters and calamities, street children, children of sex workers, children forced into commercial sexual exploitation, abused and exploited children, children forced into begging, children in conflict and contact with the law, children in situations of  labor, children of prisoners, .. children of manual scavengers and children from any other socially excluded group’.  Additionally, the National Child Labor Project Scheme was initiated in 1988 to rehabilitate working children in 12 child labor endemic districts of the country. Till date more than 9 lakh working children have been mainstreamed into regular education.

NGOs, Private Sector and Local Actors

Non Governmental Organizations have done commendable work through their grassroots activism, effective utilization of existing policy resources, supplementing them with their passion and commitment to make a difference. Big NGOs such as Save the Children, UNICEF, Child Rights and You, Bachpan Bachao Andolan and HAQ Centre for Child Rights have been vital in creating a tremendous pressure to influence policy agenda at the international fora, making basic child rights a customary norm to be followed by countries across the world. This results in a buildup of national pressure which forces countries to uphold minimum child labor standards. There is an intricate network of coordination between the big international organizations, who receive funding from rich donors across the world, including charitable foundations and the private sector keen to utilize excess profits for the public good. Throughout this process, it is the local actors, such as the district level bureaucracy and the conscientious members of grassroots civil society activists who are willing to work for non-profit causes such as the elimination of child labor. Plenty of success stories exist. It is often only the major institutions whose works get noticed in the popular domain. For instance, at Child Rights and You, 684 villages and slums were made free from child labor. Their approach involves ‘looking at children’s issues in their entirety, rather than through the silos of education, health, child labour, child abuse, foeticide/infanticide and so on; understanding the underlying root causes of the deprivation – gender, caste, livelihoods, displacement, geographies and finally, mobilising each local community to find long-term solutions to these problems, by ensuring relevant laws and policies that guarantee implementation of their rights.’  Similarly, Save the Children’s aim is ‘to make child labor socially and culturally unacceptable. This is done by working with state authorities & civil society organizations to free children engaged in labor and work to withdraw 50,000 child domestic workers from domestic help. They were instrumental in the creation of a national child protection system. They are currently working across 2000 villages in 9 states of India to remove children from exploitative working conditions and rehabilitate them and support their education. They mobilize public opinion and demand policy and legislative action to abolish child labor in all its forms’.  Furthermore, UNICEF Projects implemented in various states of the country adopt ‘an essentially holistic approach, combining strategies aimed not only to the withdrawal of children from work, but also to enhance communities’ awareness, ownership and collective action for the protection and promotion of children rights. Existing strategies include: a) Promotion of education as both, key preventive measure and essential component for the rehabilitation of released children; b) Addressing poverty related factors through the promotion of self-help-groups; c) Advocacy and social mobilization for the elimination of child labor.’  Also, through ILO’s International Programme for Elimination of Child Labor in 1991, 103,152 children were rehabilitated, and the project concluded in 2009.  Global March against Child Labor organized a march on the issue on 29 Aug 2013, wherein the children in India protested together to demand abolition of child labor, assisted by civil society and government bureaucratic actors.

Cooperation across Sectors

All institutions involved must cooperate for effective understanding of the current situation, and work together to address the deeply complex issue. The central government must provide financial, technical as well as human resources to the state departments and relevant local bureaucracies. Efforts of the civil society members must be encouraged and appreciated by state actors. It is important to understand that it is the small local level initiatives that provide the engine, innovation, patience and discipline needed to convert this into long term sustainability. While their efforts are not given enough credit or publicity by mainstream media, it is their sheer commitment that garners great appreciation from people closely involved in the issue. Successful interventions such as Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-day Meal Schemes, RTE, Matriculation Scholarship schemes for Dalits and Tribals must be strengthened.

The Way Forward

Urgent and drastic steps are needed to abolish child labour from India. As explained in the paper, the issue is multifaceted, involving simultaneously occurring complexly intricate factors. A thorough revamp of societal response to this phenomenon is the need of the hour. A holistic approach to the issue keeping in mind caste, class, and socio-economic dimensions coupled with increased coordination between the state and non state actors as well as monitoring of implementation strategies would be an ideal way to proceed. The state remains the most legitimate entity to safeguard the rights of children. Yet, most are outside the protection of law, forced to live an inhuman life, devoid of the simple joys of childhood. The state is duty bound to step up its game, and assert its authority in demanding greater accountability of the policies put forth by it, in due accordance with the Constitutional, legislative and judicial rights. There are several ways in which this can be achieved:

State as Legitimate Actor

While civil society proliferates and contributes to grassroots efforts to combat child labor, is still the state that is responsible for protecting the rights of children. The state is granted legitimacy in the eyes of the national and international community, and it must ensure that the Right to Education is complied with, in its entirety, so that the next generation gains access to basic advantages associated with literacy. To encourage students to go to school, the quality of education offered at government sponsored institutions must be improved by ensuring that teachers have relevant qualifications, they come to school every day and stay the duration of the designated period, spending that time only on effectively carrying out assigned tasks. This must be supplemented by comprehensive social and financial security programmes. MC Mehta vs the State of Tamil Nadu had offered benchmark legislation towards this end, wherein the family of the child being sent to school is offered compulsory monetary benefit or employment opportunity.

Strategies adopted at the local, state, national and global level to eliminate child labour vary. Efficient methodologies can be replicated, acting as guiding framework modified based on differing contexts. For instance, the Child Labor (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, and National Child Labor Project Scheme should be taken up in letter and spirit. Its existence and concrete framework has potential for total abolition of child labor in India. Implementation mechanisms could furthermore be strengthened. Right to Education has paved a path, making education compulsory till age 14, hence making necessary the Amendment to Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

Civil Society Advocacy

Generation of social awareness will be vital to change mindsets of our country, from one of societal apathy to anger at the existing situation, leading to the will to change the current status quo. Advocacy and media communication, in addition to grassroots activism and the willpower of the local bureaucracy should be an effective instrument to poke the guilty conscience of the corrupt mindset of the individuals and organizations responsible for bringing about an end to child labour.

Bridging the gap between those affected by the problem and the people who can help to solve the issues remains important. Workshops and street theatre reach out to the masses while Self Help Groups sustain the initial thrust of activity. Greater communication with policy makers at the national, state and local level is absolutely vital to address the issue of child labor.

Transform Societal Mindset

Merely removing the child from labor will not end the problem. It must be ensured that the child does not go back to it. This involves the family or the rehabilitation centre the child is a part of; and taking into account the particular concerns of the household level, keeping in mind the varied contexts. Changing mindsets that have existed for centuries is one of the biggest problems to be faced. New norms must be put in place by overthrowing existing hegemonies of thought that see certain labor as destined due to birth into lower strata of society.

The Disadvantaged as Agents of Change

The article briefly mentioned a few success stories. Many more of these narratives of hope exist. The sheer enthusiasm of the people to make a difference must be appreciated and encouraged. It is the unprivileged, the disadvantaged sections of the society that contain the most potential to bring about a change. Their collective will to fight against injustice is a major factor in people’s movements and provides the thrust for advocacy efforts to push for policy change and greater accountability

Address Interlocking Web of Variables for a Zero Child Labor Society

In conclusion, it can be asserted that despite the vicious circle of debt fuelled poverty, unemployment, low quality education and child labor, sustained by inequality in society; the scenario can certainly be changed for the better.  A balanced perspective of the macro and micro level situations is necessary while keeping in mind the interlocking web of variables which feed into the ugly continuity of the menace. It is hoped that the high levels of apathy pervasive in our society is offset by firm action towards a better tomorrow, by taking a small step ourselves. At present, the NDA government plans to prohibit employment of children less than 14 years, yet no concrete steps have been taken towards the same.   It is hoped that the new government will address these concerns adequately.

 Written by Archana Rath

(The author is grateful to Dr Rumi Aijaz for his kind assistance on the research for this article)


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