Census of India, 2001 report states that there are 13.7 million child laborers in India. But the Planning Commission made an estimate in 2000 that there must be at least 20 million child laborers in India. This means that at any given point of time, 3.4 % of total labor force in India constitutes of child laborers. It gets difficult to estimate an exact figure of child laborers in India, because of the vague concept and definition of child labor that is doing the rounds.
Many constitutional provisions have been formulated since 1930s to eliminate this state of crisis. The latest provision which is currently applicable in India is Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. It defines the child laborer as a child below 14 years of age who is working. This is rather a backward, quite absurd viewpoint, as what about the aspirations of a fifteen or sixteen-year- old child who wants to study but cannot because of work pressure. The act prohibits child labor particularly at railways, ports and in hazardous industries. It puts certain limitations, as it states that the child cannot work more than two shifts per day, that too of three hours each. Also, there should be leisure time between 7- 8 pm as evening time is appropriate for relaxation. Also, the act imposes a fine of ten to twenty thousand rupees or three to six month imprisonment. This is a major loophole as any violator can escape easily by just depositing the fine. Also, the act does not include the child labor in agricultural sector where 90% of the child labor exists. It takes into consideration only the organized sector. Also, the definition of hazardous industries is not yet clear in the act.
The Government of India has also started Special Investigation Cells in the states most inflicted with children working in hazardous industries. They report and eliminate the concentrations of child laborers. Also, National Project for Elimination of Child Labour (1987) was started by the Government of India to tackle this problem by indirect interventions such as reducing poverty and illiteracy rates. It improvises general welfare and development programmes aimed at improving socio- economic conditions of the families.
This is a step in the right direction as the main underlying causes for why child labor exists in our country are poverty and parental illiteracy. Other related causes for a child to go in workforce could be single parent families, family crises, parental indebtness, migration from villages to large cities and the belief that certain skills (like embroidery, zari work, etc.) are well- learnt only in early years of life. Also, child laborers come in cheap, are abundant in number and an uncomplaining labor force. Thus, people take advantage of such factors.
Maximum child labor exists in the agricultural sector. Moreover, it is a disguised form of labor as it is considered the household duty of the children. It does not include any sort of payment, thus it has not been included in the definition of child labor in various acts. But it comes down to the point that these children are not being given enough opportunity for education and learning in schools. Ideally, any child of school-going age, out of school, should be taken in the category of child laborer, as she/ he is bound to be working for monetary gains of the family. An adolescent girl who is told to sit at home, take care of her siblings, do household chores and refrained from the opportunity to gain education, is also suffering from the brunt of child labor.
There are large variations and disparities amongst the various states of the country as far as the concentration of child labor is concerned. The highest child labor rates exist in Andhra Pradesh (14.3%) and lowest is in West Bengal (4.4%). Some of the hazardous industries that have been listed in the Child Labour Act of 1986 are beedi making, carpet weaving, cement manufacturing, cloth printing, match making, explosives, mica cutting, shellac, soap, tanning, construction, etc. Even the definition of hazardous industries is vague. We do not allow our children to work in kitchens as she/ he is prone to accidents there. So, what about the millions of children who are working in roadside eating joints and also as servants in houses?
Working in hazardous industries can make these children prone to many ailments such as eye defects, tuberculosis, asthma, silicosis, etc. Generally, the working conditions are also non- mechanized and labor-intensive in order to save costs. There is a continuous danger to health and safety concerns, physical environment is poor and unstimulating and there is insensitivity to the needs of the children. There is fatigue, strain, malnutrition and hunger experienced by children. The biggest shame is that bonded labor still exists in India in spite of the Bonded Labour Abolishment Act which came out in 1976.
Now, what can be the possible solutions to this massive problem, without overcoming which the vision of India becoming truly empowered cannot be achieved? The provisions given by the Government are so rudimentary and backward in nature, that we do not even have a clear definition of child labor yet. Firstly, all children who are of school- going age, but cannot study because of family pressures and poverty needs to be included under the definition of child labor. Education seems to be the only solution for elimination of various troubles that our country is facing. If this generation of children does not get to relish the taste of 100% literacy rate, then the vision of empowered India would still remain a distant dream.
Many employers, most of whom have employed children for household chores, justify their act by saying that at least by staying at their homes, these young children are getting a congenial and nurturing environment for their development, which is otherwise not possible for them due to poverty and neglect that they face at their homes. This situation can be acceptable as in only now, and also if the child is being allowed to go to school and given sufficient time for study and relaxation. He can study and work also to supplement her/ his family income. With emphasizing stress upon literacy levels, there would come a time when there will be no requirement of child labor because of the effects it will have on the population rates, health, knowledge, mortality rates etc.
The point is to create such conditions that people do not feel the need to employ children and hamper their future, and also the future of the country. The point is to create a stimulating environment for the children of the country for their effective cognitive, physical, moral and emotional development and this vision just cannot be achieved till even one child is left to work in hazardous environments and denied the right to education.