In June 2016, Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed surprise that child labor still existed in India. He spoke at the inauguration of the state’s Child Labor Tracking System. The Hindu quoted Kumar wondering why “there is still child labor even though the government is giving all facilities to those in need since birth and Anganwadi Kendras. There is lunchtime food, uniform, books, bicycles, etc.”
That was a good question. Child labor in India has been remarkably persistent for decades. While its incidence (the percentage of working children among all children) has decreased, falling to 3.9% of children in 2011 from 5% in 2001, each decennial census has found 10 million or more children between the ages of five and 14 years work.
An examination of state trends shows that in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, the number of working children between the ages of five and 14 has increased in the last two censuses, making it the state with the highest number of working children. Most of the other states have seen a marginal decline, although the figures in Bihar, the state of Kumar, more or less stabilized between 2001 and 2011.
Ten years later, cases of child labor in several states have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, as school closings and the economic consequences of lockdowns have pushed children to work, IndiaSpend reported in June 2021.
“There are two parts to this [persistence]. One is a problem on the supply side. There are a number of gaps in the implementation of social welfare policies. Parents are forced to send their children to work because they do not have reliable livelihoods and income, access to affordable health care, good education, secure credit, among a variety of things, “said Anusha Chandrasekharan, senior program manager at the Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, a development support organization dedicated to participatory research and capacity building on equity and good governance.
“On the demand side, the industry sees them as captive labor, so there is a guarantee of labor, it is not necessary that they be paid the same salaries as adults, so there are cuts in labor production costs and there is limited or no scope for any type of negotiation, not to mention collective bargaining. Besides all this, on the ground, child protection systems are not very functional and proactive, “he added.
A district-level mapping of the 2011 census child laborers shows that they are concentrated around employment centers in urban India, especially metropolises, indicating the presence of child migrant workers.
Gaps in access to education
“Poor quality of teaching, teacher indifference, difficulties in accessing benefits, distance to school, and inability to meet additional tuition or stationery costs were reported as some of the factors that often make that parents consider their decision to send their children to work as a wise choice, “says the Bihar State Action Plan for the Eradication of Child Labor and the Prohibition and Regulation of Adolescent Labor, 2017.
“I do not agree with the idea that parents see no advantage in education,” said Shantha Sinha, a prominent child rights activist, former president of the National Commission for the Protection of Children’s Rights and founder -secretary of the MV Foundation, a trust based in Telangana. who works in child labor, IndiaSpend said. “All parents know what it is to go to school. They know the value of education, they know that their children have to be in schools. But schools do not know that parents want their children to be in schools. I believe which is the insensitivity of the educational system to what first generation students would need. That is more the reason [for child labour] than financial need or any other income factor. “
While some significant progress was made in school enrollment, especially since the approval of the Children’s Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009 (RTE 2009), gaps in access to education persist. The number of students enrolled in upper primary schools increased by almost 20% after the passage of the law until 2016. In that year, only 3.3% of children in rural India were not attending school. school. But data from Mission Antyodaya, an annual survey of Gram Panchayats conducted by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, demonstrates the continuing gaps.
According to RTE 2009, all children between the ages of six and 14 have the right to a free and compulsory education at a neighborhood school. A neighborhood school should be 1 km from the homes of children studying in grades I to V, and less than 3 km from the homes of children in grades VI to VII, with appropriate relaxations provided in regions with difficult terrain, according to issued RTE rules. by the central government. Data from Mission Antyodaya shows that while 78% of Gram Panchayats have elementary schools, this number drops to 39% for middle schools and only 18% for secondary schools (grades IX and X). Therefore, children who pass primary school can still exit the educational system simply because they do not have access to education.
And this is before questions arise about the quality of education. “Jo bacche vidyalaya nahi jaate, wo child labor hain” (children who do not go to school end up being child laborers) “, Pramod Sharma, founder and general secretary of Center Direct, a Bihar-based NGO working with labor Child survivors, they told IndiaSpend. “The Right to Education Act exists, but there are problems with its proper implementation, such as how to retain students. Teachers are employed and admission occurs, but after admission, if children do not attend school, there is no provision for retention. The schools do not offer an interesting and quality education either. “
Lack of access to quality education could lead parents to conclude that it would be better to use their children’s time working and have them contribute financially to the home. Furthermore, “unemployment is so high among educated people that people say that an educated child becomes unable to earn money,” Sharma said.
School closures and lack of access to online learning have increased the gap in access to education for poor households, IndiaSpend reported in June 2021. More than three-quarters of children did not have access to online learning. online and more than a third of children did not have access to any learning materials during the first Covid-19 wave in 2020, according to a survey by the NGO Save the Children. Many inactive children were forced into child labor to help support their families.
Gaps in access to banking services and the public distribution system
The government’s Direct Benefit Transfer Mission aims to transfer cash benefits and grants directly to the Aadhaar-linked bank accounts of beneficiaries. Most child labor rehabilitation and relief schemes (such as the National Child Labor Project and victim compensation schemes) have a direct benefit transfer element. The money is sent to the child’s bank account, as part of the rehabilitation. But access to banking remains limited, as confirmed by data from Mission Antyodaya, preventing access to these benefits for children and their families. Kerala is still an outlier with 91% bank coverage, but for the country as a whole, banks are only available in 12% of all villages.
Financial inclusion, or access to transparent financial products and services, is also critical to alleviating poverty. Banks offer financial products such as credit, pension payments, investments and insurance through legitimate means, rather than through the informal system that leaves vulnerable families at the mercy of moneylenders and usurers, experts say. “It is not just about access to banking, but also about access to secure loans, for which collateral such as ownership of land or property is needed. Unsafe loans mean that the family has to find ways to pay back the money. even through child labor, “says Chandrasekharan.
The Public Distribution System (PDS) runs a chain of government-sponsored stores that provide food and non-food staples to vulnerable households at subsidized prices. The system is a vital part of the social safety net, because it helps ensure that people, at the very least, do not go hungry because they cannot afford food. Food security is a starting point for poverty alleviation, as food spending accounts for 28.3% of household spending, the largest part of the average Indian household budget. And poverty, as the International Labor Organization puts it, is “the greatest force driving children to the workplace.”
The PDS is available in only 50% of the villages in the country; In 40% of villages, people need to travel between one and 10 km to reach a PDS store, while for 10% of villages, the PDS store is more than 10 km away.
Gaps in access to health care and the Covid-19 pandemic
A March Pew Research Center report estimated that the number of poor in India increased by 75 million due to the closure of Covid-19 and the subsequent economic recession. About 63% of healthcare spending in India was out of pocket in 2018, even before the pandemic. High out-of-pocket spending on health care pushes people below the poverty line and puts children at risk of being forced to work. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, access to government-funded healthcare has become even more crucial.
However, access to government health centers is remarkably low in the country, with no primary health center (PHC), sub-center, or community health center (CHC) available in 73% of the country’s villages.
Not all villages are expected to have a health center. Within the framework of the National Rural Health Mission, the sub-centers, APS and CHC serve populations of 5,000, 30,000 and 120,000 each, respectively, in the plains. However, some states perform significantly better than others. In Kerala, only 13% of the villages do not have any form of government health care. In Gujarat, 37% of the villages do not have APS, CHC or sub-centers.
In general, child labor cannot be tackled in isolation, Chandrasekharan said. Both the Center and the states have taken many steps to address child labor: there are state action plans, child protection mechanisms, multi-departmental initiatives. “Why then do we still have child labor?” he asked, echoing Nitish Kumar’s question from 2016. “Maybe it has to do with a concerted multi-stakeholder engagement. Disincentivizing companies from employing child labor, supporting families with some of the issues raised above : access to safe loans, access to sustainable livelihoods and a decent salary, access to safe, affordable and quality health care (which leads to the indebtedness of a large part of the population) “.
Most important, however, Chandrasekharan said, would be a common school system that makes quality and equitable education a reality for all.