Between dreams and brooms: Heartbreaking reality of child labor in India

A child rag-picker with his cart on World Day Against Child Labour in Varanasi on June 12, 2014. (Photo: IANS)

By Rukma Singh

As the world comes together to commemorate the World Day against Child Labor on June 12th, the significance of the reasons behind the very inception of this day remains untapped all throughout the world.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), child labor is “a violation of fundamental human rights, which impairs a child’s development, potentially leading to lifelong physical or psychological damage.”

The organization’s comprehensive research on the subject demonstrates that eliminating child labor can help developing economies generate economic benefits nearly seven times greater than the costs incurred in better schooling and social services.

The question is, what governs the choices behind child labor?

“I used to think I’ll earn enough to send my daughter to school. But by the time she turned five, I still didn’t have enough money to do that. Plus, my husband kept encouraging her to do household work because she was a girl. What else would she do? And what else could I say?
Today, at the age of 10, she can do all the household work possible. She’s a favorite in the apartments that I work in. With the kind of skills she has, she adds to the family’s little income.” says Babli, a household helper in a society in Gurgaon.

“I go to my favorite places first, finish the work as soon as I can. And then I go to the places I don’t like.” says Rani, Babli’s daughter.

“I don’t like them because they shout at me all the time. My work is to clean the house and dishes. But they want me to go ahead and clean the toilets also. It makes me feel a little bad but they promise extra money, so I go ahead.” she continues.

Analyzing the reasons

Child labor is induced by a continuous loop of poverty resulting in a lack of options of earning livelihood. This loop is further facilitated by societal landscapes.

Questions like “what else can we do?” loom over the lives of poor families. The result is that the only option left for them is to make sure each member of the family is earning some amount of money.

At such times, the want to be learned and educated are heavily overshadowed by the need to earn a living, no matter how bad the situation is.

Working in dingy beedi factories, risking lives in the mining industry, cleaning public toilets seem like doable alternatives to the families of these children. Even the existing labor laws protecting them does not deter the poor from going ahead.

Extent of the adversity

One of the basic problems in India is the fact that there is a multitude of schemes in place. But the proper implementation of even one seems like a farfetched dream.

With child labor reducing at a dismal rate of only 2.2%, it would take over 100 years to put an end to this menace, says an analysis done by Child Rights and You (CRY).

“This is of utmost concern especially since enforcement machinery is primarily based in urban regions and the implementation of child protection structures is stronger in urban India. This increase in urban child labor could be attributed to increased migration including seasonal migration for employment as well as trafficking of unaccompanied minors,” told Komal Ganotra, director, policy & research, CRY to a national daily.

‘Efforts’ by the Government of India

In an attempt to rebuild the country’s child labor laws, the Indian government has banned the employment of children below 14 years of age in various commercial ventures, while permitting them to work in family enterprises and on farmlands after school hours and during vacations.

The new amendment will, however, permit kids to work in “non-hazardous” businesses, the entertainment industry (including films, advertisements and TV serials) and sporting events from the 18 occupations and 65 processes specified under the 1986 law.

Reading between the lines

Behind this carefully constructed amendment lies the ability given to families to skirt the new law.  The new amendment is bound to push many an innocent life into the dark shadows of forced labor, forcing them away from one of life’s basic necessities: education. Added to this is the inherent disadvantage to the girl child, who can now more easily pushed into household labor while being denied her basic right to education.