July 29, 2013 7:36 pm

India’s child labour is a deplorable necessity

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Until we can eliminate the need for children to work, a ban is unrealistic, writes Ranjani Iyer Mohanty
A boy at a railway station in India©Suzanne Lee

Three years ago Shivani came to work for me. She was small and slender. She had a serious face that hid a ready smile. She told me she was 18 years old but looked about 12. In her world of families struggling to put food on the table, there are no birth certificates. I needed a maid and she seemed to fit the bill. She had no experience but she was intelligent, a fast learner and a diligent worker. And, most importantly, she seemed like a good person.

Shivani is only one of many children working in India’s huge unorganised sector. Young girls usually work as maids or nannies. If you stand in the middle of a street in Delhi and shout chottu (“small one”), several heads will look up. They will belong to boys, aged anywhere from eight to 14 years, engaged in myriad menial but vital tasks: sweeping the floor, making deliveries and serving coffee and tea at small offices and corner shops.

In August last year the Indian government banned all labour for children under the age of 14. Hiring a child is now a punishable offence, with up to two years in prison, a fine of Rs50,000 ($840) or both. The ban follows India’s 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (known popularly as the right to education or RTE), which states that all children from the ages of six to 14 have the right to free schooling. Yet a year on from the child labour ban and, despite much talk, there is no visible difference on the ground.

Laws banning child labour and making education compulsory are laudatory actions, but are not enough to stop these children from working or shift them into classrooms – for two reasons.

First, the RTE exists only on paper. Referring to the concept, the official website admits “the right exists in theory, but there is no capacity to implement this right in practice”. Government schools suffer from a lack of qualified teachers, clean drinking water and toilets. (Only 54 per cent of schools have a separate girls toilet and so girls drop out once they start menstruating.) Having failed in its responsibility, the government has foisted the task to private schools. However, they do not have the financial resources nor the will to accept students under the RTE. Then there is the corruption involved in getting school admission or even the application form.

Second and more fundamentally, the underlying cause of child labour still exists: poverty. While numbers are difficult to determine, the 2001 census counted 12.7m working children in India, between the ages of five and 14, whereas a 2011 Unicef report stated a figure of 28m. For most of them, working is not an option; it is a necessity. The majority are not forced into labour or kept as slaves; they are working because they need to make some money to survive. Poverty keeps these children out of school, working hard to earn whatever little money they can to augment their desperately low family incomes.

No one wants to see children working, least of all their parents. We all want to see them healthy, safe, well-cared for, playing games and learning for the future. But the reality in the streets is far from ideal. Banning child labour without addressing poverty serves merely to eliminate a viable and currently necessary alternative for these children and their families.

Until we can alleviate poverty and eliminate the need for these children to work, simply banning child labour is both unrealistic and unhelpful.

What we should do instead is ensure that these children who need to work are not exploited – that they receive at least a minimum wage – and on time – don’t work in unsafe or unhealthy environments, receive healthcare and other government benefits, and are well fed. Furthermore, we should ensure that when they and their families are in a better financial state, these children are assisted in making a smooth transition from workplace to school, so they can complete their education successfully or enrol in vocational training to set them securely on a path to a viable future.

I grew fond of Shivani. I would offer her meals. Although at first she refused – perhaps out of politeness, pride or not wanting to accept anything from a stranger – she soon accepted and ate hungrily. One evening when she stayed to babysit my then 13-year-old daughter (I’m not sure who was older nor who looked after whom), I heard them both laughing out loud over a movie. Some six months later, she fell ill. She was experiencing severe menstrual bleeding. I wanted to take her to my doctor but understandably she felt more comfortable going with her mother to the village clinic. A few days later, she stopped coming. I phoned the mobile number she had given me as a contact – someone in a shop above which she lived – but they said they did not know anyone by that name.

I never saw her again – until last week. As I was driving down the road, I saw her walking with a group of young girls, talking and laughing. She was wearing a school uniform.

The writer is an editor and commentator based in Delhi

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