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Monday, 6 May, 2002, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
India 'losing' child-labour battle
Child carrying bricks on construction site
Poverty is blamed for many being sent out to work
test hello test
By Rajyasri Rao
BBC correspondent in Delhi

A decade after India ratified a UN convention pledging to protect children's rights, the country continues to be home to the world's largest number of child labourers.

Estimates vary widely, but it is believed there are up to 100 million children toiling in homes, factories, shops, fields, brothels and on the streets of rural and urban India.

Children working in farm fields
Children in rural and urban areas face similar pressures to bring home money
Both government officials and activists agree that one of the root causes for the continued prevalence of child labour is excruciating poverty.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 40% of India's citizens were living in abject poverty in the mid-1990s and most believe that figure has not fallen.

Research suggests that since families need money to survive, children are pushed into work at an early age to supplement the meagre income.

Sociologists say the lower castes of Hindu society perhaps feel this pressure the most.

India and labour
40% of population live in abject poverty - ILO estimate
India has signed 120 ILO conventions all seeking to eliminate child labour
No one jailed for violating labour laws (1986-93)
8 in 100 children recorded as working
Singled out for comprehensive discrimination for their association with ritual impurity and accompanying low social status, their children are pushed into work at early ages in hazardous jobs to help make ends meet.

But many aid agencies tend to be critical of what they consider the government's over-emphasis on the link between poverty and child labour.

They say it is a telling example of the lack of political will to implement a plethora of laws that are already in place to prevent and regulate the employment of children.

India is a signatory to more than 120 ILO conventions, all of which seek to eliminate child labour.

Legal loopholes

It also has national legislation that prohibits "children's employment in jobs hazardous to their lives and health".

The laws also assure "regulation of working conditions of children employed in occupations and processes where their employment is not prohibited".

But according to a leading non-governmental organisation called Campaign Against Child Labour, the legislation suffers from too many loopholes.

In a report submitted to a session of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1999, the group said the legislation's distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous occupations was arbitrary.

Many jobs that were dangerous for untrained children were left out, including glass-manufacturing, sari-weaving, rag-picking, sewer-cleaning and gem-polishing.

A child using a hammer
Jobs not listed as hazardous can still be dangerous to the untrained, agencies say
The Campaign said the law totally overlooked up to 85% of the child labour force that works in the unorganised sector outside registered establishments.

These kind of jobs may include working in the fields as unskilled labour, as care-givers to younger siblings in their own homes, as domestic help in other people's homes and as part of the country's larger sector of the self-employed.

But above all, the law is seen to suffer from a poor record of implementation.

Between 1986 and 1993, nearly 4,000 people were reported to have been charged for violating labour law but only a few more than 1,000 were convicted and none served a jail sentence.

Education example

Activists say what is far more important than laws banning child labour, is a political commitment to primary education.

India's southern state of Kerala which boasts a near-100% literacy rate is cited as a prime example.

Only one in 100 of the state's children are recorded to be working, compared with a national average of nearly eight in 100.

A child working on the street
The caste system can dictate a child's life before birth
And this, activists say, stems from the investment the state makes in education - allocating more funds to the sector than any other state and spending far more money on mass education than colleges and universities.

The state has not made any special effort to end child labour, but the expansiveness of the school system is seen to have had a crucial effect in keeping children inside the classroom rather than at work.

More than 350 million of India's over one billion population are estimated to be illiterate.

Investment crucial

And although a bill that makes access to free, primary education a fundamental right has been passed recently by the Indian parliament's lower house, constitutional experts say it is not yet clear how the government intends to make this happen.

Some educational experts say it will require the investment of nearly 600 billion rupees ($12bn) over the next decade or so - a cost that the government may be unwilling to bear on its own.

But advocacy groups say the pressure is steadily mounting on India to improve its dismal record of child rights.

Apart from some funding being made indirectly conditional on individual countries' child-right records, India also faces the threat posed by continuing debates at World Trade Organisation (WTO) forums with developed countries keen on linking trade to labour standards.

They say the solution lies in the government working closely with aid agencies in the field - to help combat child labour with literacy programmes and give the voluntary sector more teeth in implementing them effectively.

See also:

06 May 02 | Business
Child labour 'fuels commodity trade'
24 Apr 02 | Education
Child labour crackdown
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