Child Labour and Education Policy in India

Shantha Sinha

Secretary Trustee, M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation, 98, Marredpally West, Secunderabad, India -500096 

The Administrator, Vol: XLI, July-September 1996, pp.17-29 


All non-school going children are child workers in one form or the other. Agricultural child labour constitutes the core of the problem. Child labour policies and education policies have to be formulated and operated in tandem. Parents do want to send their children to be educated and poverty as a limiting factor is highly over-rated. Motivation and availability of infrastructure rather than poverty are the key factors. The paper underlines the strengths of formal education in eradicating child labour and forcefully argues for a legislation to provide for compulsory education. 



A number of policy initiatives and programmes have been undertaken in this country over the last decade with the basic objective of dealing with the problem of the rapidly increasing number of child workers. The formulation of a new National Child Labour Policy, the enactment of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, the setting up of a Task Force on child labour, the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and so on have all formed a part of this process. Corresponding initiatives were taken in the related area of education where a New Education policy was formulated which incorporated a separate component for working children. It is the objective of this paper to examine whether the policy initiatives taken by the Government of India over the last few years can make an impact on the child labour situation in the country. In particular, the paper examines the basic understanding of the issue of child labour in the Indian context, which has influenced the policies and strategies adopted by the Government. In doing this it is argued that the government policies governing child labour are based not only on assumptions which are fundamentally flawed but also on a faulty appreciation of the situation in the field. It is further argued that, because of this, the set of policy prescriptions and strategies that follow cannot adequately deal with the problem. Consequently, unless the basic premises adopted by the policy makers are abandoned, no significant change can be made in the child labour situation in the country. 

The paper also examines the role of the education policy in relation to child labour. It shows how, in proposing Non Formal Education as a major strategy for dealing with illiteracy among working children, the Government has failed to realize the potential of formal primary education as a powerful tool for withdrawing children from work. In the end the paper asserts that compulsory education, at least at the primary level, is not only desirable but also a viable and practicable solution to the problem of increasing child labour. 

Two assumptions have broadly influenced Government's policies in respect of child labour. The first is that, child labour is a 'harsh reality' and one can only mitigate some of the harshness of the exploitative aspects of child labour. The 'harsh reality' of child labour arises out of the fact that in the present state of development in the country many parents, on account of poverty, have to send their children to work in order to supplement their income and the income derived from the cild labour, however meagre, is essential to sustain the family. This is the 'poverty argument of child labour. 

The second assumption is that there is a distinction between child labour and exploitation of the child labour. It has been accepted that a certain amount of child labour will persist under the family environment which is non-exploitative. This is not only inevitable but also desirable. At the same time, there are other forms of child work such as in hazardous occupations, factories and other organized establishments which are reprehensible and should not be allowed to continue. 

The above assumptions have defined the framework of all policies adopted by the government. It would be appropriate at this stage to see exactly how policies of the Government have been influenced by this framework. 

Assessment of the Dimension of the Problem

In the first place, these assumptions have strongly influeced the Government's perspective of the dimension of the problem of child labour. According to the Government, the number of working children, estimated at 17.58 million in the 43rd round of child labour estimates, rose to 18.17 million in 1990 and will be 20.15 million in the year 2000. 

There are, however, other estimates which establish that these figures are a gross underestimation. Estimates, for instance, of the Operations Research Group in a study sponsored by the Labour Ministry reveal that about 44 million children in the 5-14 age group are in the labour force. A subsequent assessment has placed the figure of working children even higher at 114 million. 

As per the official estimate the percentage of children in the age group 6-14 attending schools is around 49%. The projected population in the age group for 1994-95 is 179 million which implies that around 90 million children do not go to school. Even assuming that all working children do not go to school there is an unexplained gap of at least 72 million children whose status is that of non working, nonstop going child. 

In the rural situation the fact that a child who does not go to a formal school is a working child. Collection of water, fuel, maintenance of the house and taking care of younger siblings all constitute an important element of a child's life. While many of these activities do not necessarily fall under definition of hazardous work, inasmuch as they interfere with the normal development of the child an din the child's ability to reach his/her true potential they constitute exploitation of the child. In the context of rural India, therefore, the concept of a non working, nonstop going child simply does not exist. Any effort to deal with the issue of child labour has to contend with this aspect. 

The Legal Framework

The legislative apparatus brought in by the government is by far the most clear expression of the influence of the assumptions made by the policy makers in regard to child labour. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, itself talks more of regulation than prohibition of child labour. Child labour is prohibited only in certain sectors (Part A and Part B of the Schedule) laid down under the act which provides for regulation in certain other areas. At the same time, there is a proviso which lays down, that '... nothing in this section shall apply to any workshop wherein any process is carried on by the occupier with the aid of his family or to any school established by, or receiving assistance or recognition from Government'. 

It does not require a legal expert to realize the sort of loopholes that this formulation provides for. An analysis of data indication the number of prosecutions launched under this Act and convictions obtained would clearly indicate that this Act, despite all its intentions, has achieved very little. Even under the best of circumstances, an Act of this nature cannot be implemented unless there is a demand for it from the affected parties, i.e. that children or their parents. In this case, where the Government itself has proceeded on the assumption that child labour cannot be eliminated and that certain forms of child labour are inevitable, it is even less likely to serve any purpose. 

Action Plans to Eliminate Child Labour

The legislative apparatus by itself is unlikely to yield results as legal Action is only the first step in a process. The crucial aspect, however, is the subsequent step in this process which involves constructive rehabilitation of the child withdrawn from work. This, according to the government, is provided in the second and third parts of the National Policy relating to General Development Programmes for benefiting child labour and the project based Action Plan. 

As far as the General Development Programmes are concerned, the Task Force that was formed specifically to make an assessment commented that "First, the size of the total resources for general development programmes remained the same and they have always been so meagre that a small frAction out of those negligible resources could never be meaningful. Secondly, no specific allocations were carved out or earmarked. No proportions or percentages were prescribed. No weightage for child labour mandated." 

Further, commenting on the Action Plan the Task Force remarked.... 'Broadly and briefly, we feel that the Action Projects which were meant to be the testing ground for the implementation of the Act and Policy have so far failed to yield any sizable worthwhile results.' 

The reason why the views of the Task Force have been quoted here is that despite such strong criticism from a committee appointed specifically to study the implementation of the Act and the Action Plan, the Government of India has not in any way altered its approach. It is interesting to note that whereas the Task Force submitted its report in 1989, its recommendations are said to be still 'under examination'. To compound matters the Government of India has brought out, as already mentioned, a fresh plan which is nothing but an extension of the earlier Action PLan. The new scheme once again concentrates on areas of high incidence of child labour, in hazardous occupations and involves withdrawing children from work, provision of training, education and rehabilitation. The scheme, however, in no way answers the questions posed by the Task Force in respect of the earlier Action Plan. Further, even accepting the official figure of 20 million working children in hazardous occupations belong to families who have migrated from rural areas. Lacunae of this nature are essentially the consequence of the Government's pre-occupation with only a part of the child labour force and its restricted definition of what constitutes child labour. Any comprehensive plan of actin would have to cover the entire range of working children without making an artificial differentiation between those in hazardous occupations and in other works. 

Non Formal Education

A related area which has also been strongly influenced by the above mentioned assumptions regarding child labour is that of education.  The New Education Policy which was to be closely coordinated with the Child Labour Policy incorporated a major effort to brig drop-outs and non enrolled children into the education system through non-formal education (NFE). The NFE was put in place with the key objective of providing education for working children. It was proposed as a n alternative to the formal education stream as it was argued that improving the facilities of primary schools would do little to help the poor who dropped out, whereas the system of non formal education was targeted to meet the needs of the working children.  The intended clientele includes drop-outs, children of weaker sections, girls in the age group of 6-14 years and boys and girls who are employed in professions like carpet weaving and so on.  The NFE is supposed to have a flexible curriculum according to the needs of the working children and the youth.  Classes are to be held at hours taking into account the children's work schedule. 

The NFE system has been the subject of much criticism in terms of its inherent limitations because of its low paid, ill trained teachers, working in an atmosphere not particularly conductive to learning for working children after a full day's work.  What is of greater relevance however, is that the NFE policy provides a clear example of the influence of accepting the poverty argument of child labour on the Elementary Education Policy. 
Thus, given the fact that the poor have to send their children to work, the NFE provides a convenient framework of education which does not interfere with the child's work.  In the context of ARticle 32 what the NFE has done is that, in providing a solution to the problem of child labour interfering with the child's education, it has provided a system of child education which does not interfere with child labour. 

An Alternative Strategy

The above arguments draw attention to the manner in which Government's policies in respect of child labour and education have evolved and the factors which have influenced these policies. Much of what has been stated above is widely known.  However, despite the sustained criticism of Government's policies from several quarters and their consistent failure to to provide any solution to the problem of child labour, there has been no effort on the part of the Government to modify its approach or to change the policies.  In fact, policy makers have gone on e step further an announced a further plan to "eliminate" child labour by 2000 A.D. on the same line as the earlier Action plans.  This situation obtains because the thought processed of those involved in making the polices have got stuck in a narrow groove defined by the assumptions regarding child labour.  As long as these assumptions are held valid the policies and strategies will continue to remain the same.  It is only when they are abandoned and the problem is observed from a different view point, that of the parent and the child, that a new strategy will emerge. 

The starting point of any strategy dealing with the issue of child labour cannot lie in children engaged in hazardous occupations alone.  While this section of children does constitute the most glaring example of the failure of our child labour and education policies they too are only results of a larger phenomenon taking place in the countryside.  80% of the child labour and, consequently, illiteracy exists in families engaged in agricultural work and we cannot afford to ignore this fact.  Further, a significant proportion of even those children engaged in hazardous occupations in the urban areas belong to families who have migrated from the rural areas. With a large reservoir of working children available in the rural areas any attempt to deal with the problem of child labour only in specific industries and areas of concentration can at best yield marginal results.  In the long run it is the rural areas and in particular the agricultural sector to which we have to ultimately turn.  In other words, what is essentially required is to adopt ARticle 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in its true spirit and recognize the fact that any non school going child is na exploited child.  In artificially categorizing some of children as 'mere' child workers instead of exploited child workers it is often forgotten that it takes very little to convert the former into the latter.  Given these fact, any plan to deal with child labour has to deal with the 90 million non-school going children. 

It needs to be emphasized at this point that what is being suggested does not represent a very great departure from existing policies.  The Government has consistently been referring to programmes for providing education for all, raising budgetary allocations for education to 6% of GNP and elimination of child labour by the year 2000 AD.  What is required is a change in attitude in priorities rather than any radical change in the programmes themselves.  It also calls for a more effective co-ordination between the labour policies and education policies and a proper appreciation of the fact that  such ongoing programmes as Education for All are powerful means to bring about a qualitative change in the child labour situation.  The following sections are based on the experience of the M.V. Foundation which has been working with rural child labour utilizing the ongoing mainstream education programmes to withdraw children from work. 

The experience of M.V. Foundation shows that many of the government policies are based on negative formulations.  For instance, the assumption that parents are not willing to send their children to schools; elimination of child labour is not possible nor is it possible to implement compulsory education laws; the present school curriculum is not relevant or responsive to the needs of the rural society and so on.  The situation in eh field, however, indicates that these negative formulations have much less to do with facts than with the State's reluctance to deal with the problem in its entirety.  This is not to say that these formulations ar totally incorrect, but there is a certain convenience, that of not having to do anything, associate with accepting them which makes them appear much more insurmountable than they actually are.  In areas where M.V. Foundation has been working there were innumerable instances of poor parents sending their children to school.  There were instances of children patiently waiting in makeshift class rooms for teachers to arrive.  There were also innumerable occasions when parents willingly handled even extra work so that their children went to school.  The fact is that there is considerable demand even in the rural areas and even among the poor for education. That it has not been articulated effectively is yet another instance of the weak not being able to extract what they want. 

The first step to an alternative policy hinges on abandoning the negative approach to the problem of child labour.  RAther than trying to explain why children are sent to work instead of school one should try to understand why there are children still being sent to schools - the same run-down school without adequate infrastructure and sometimes with just one teacher providing socially irrelevant education. Instead of giving continued explanations for drop-out rates one should attempt to understand why it is not even higher than it is, why it is that it is not always the poorest who drop out first and why factors such as parent's educational status matter at all.  These are questions the answers to which are extremely relevant in understanding et strength of the latent demand for education. Even for a parent who sends his child to school it is much easier to explain why he should not do so (the answers have all been supplied by the government itself) than why he actually does.  But this inability on his part should not be construed as his wanting this child to go to work. It should be clearly understood that acceptance of the premise that poverty compels parents to send their children to work is extremely convenient to those charged with the responsibility of reducing, if not eliminating, children labour because in such a case, improving the economic status of the parents becomes the focal point of attention. This is neither the responsibility of the labour nor that of the education department and the buck can be passed elsewhere. The 'poverty' argument and the argument that child labour has a major role in the production process of an under-developed economy is a purely static description of the position in the field. What this does not take into account is the dynamics of the evolution of society and the consequent changes in the hopes and aspirations of parents in regard to their children. 

Ultimately, therefore, unless the government machinery and policy makers accept the fact that the existence of child labour has much more to do with the government's own inability, if not reluctance, to provide adequate infrastructure and to motivate the parents through systematic extension work than any desire or compulsion on the part of the parents to send their children to work, a solution to the problem cannot be found. 

When it is accepted that there is a demand for education and parents, even poor parents, are willing to send their children to school, the onus of controlling child labour essentially shifts to the education policy and regulation through labour acts becomes less relevant.  But, as has already been mentioned, the education policy of the government is heavily weighted towards providing NFEs which far from mitigating the problem of child labour actually condones it.  The failure of the NFE programme lies no in its faulty execution.  In fact, as has already been mentioned, its greatest  failure is in its assumption that working children cannot be withdrawn from work, and therefore, have to be given the benefit of education outside working hours.  The fact that there is an unfulfilled demand for formal education even among the poor in the rural areas has been totally denied in this attempt to expand primary education. There is a singular lack of faith that people, even poor people, value education and learning and are prepared to make sacrifices to provide it at least for their children.  It is in this context that the issue of compulsory education becomes important. 

The Formal Education System

Before dealing with the issue of compulsory education, a brief examination of the outcome which formal education in general is subject to would be in order.  The formal education system has often been described as being ill designed, not responsive to the needs of the working children, irrelevant in terms of converting children to socially productive elements and a poor alternative to children of families engaged in traditional crafts. It has been criticized on the ground of creating a mass of educated illiterates who are neither willing nor able to perform traditional family occupations and of contributing to the lumpenization of the rural society.  It had also been severely attacked as a major cause for the decline in traditional crafts. 

In terms of child labour, however, the formal education system has an advantage unmatched by another. It can never be accused of supporting child labour. This crucial positive aspect is what makes the system most worthwhile to build upon. In fact, a closer look at the criticism against the formal education system shows that is being found fault with precisely because it is inimical to child labour.  Thus, school timings are "ill designed" because they interfere with a child's daily or seasonal work and "irrelevant" because they do not teach him to be what his parents were i.e. agriculture labourers or artisans. But, these are the very strengths of this system when viewed from eh point of reducing child labour. 

Formal education especially in the first 7-10 year of school is meant to be of a general nature, since children in the age group 5-14 are very rarely in position to pick up skills.  This is why, vocational education and training n traditional crafts are quite irrelevant to this age group. The argument that it is at this stage that an individual is most receptive to skill development has nowhere been borne out by facts.  On the other hand, time and again it has been proved that these arguments are mere excuses to perpetuate child labour. The 'nimble finger' theory in respect of carpet weaving children is a case in point. In fact, master craftsmen themselves often ensure that their children are educated to least a minimum level before being put through training usually after the age of 14 years. The fact that a child coming from a craftsman's family picks up the craft better has more to do with the environment provided at home in terms of motivation and support than to training per se. In the ultimate analysis, the advantage of having children take up training  in traditional crafts whether in the family environment or through vocational education does not lie in either the economic benefit of the child/family, the improvement of the skill of the child or the craft itself. Rather, it ensures availability of cheap and, more importantly, obedient child labour to the employers. 

Formal education, by not treating working and non-working children differently also provides in the true spirit of Article 32, an opportunity to children to think in terms of an occupation by choice. That an educated child of a labourer decides not to pursue agricultural labour has to be seen as an expression of individuality rather than as suppression of a skill by the education system. No society can be built on the logic that an illiterate child worker is better than a literate unemployed one. This is not to suggest either that the formal education system is without serious defects or that the system of training utilized traditionally has no merits at all especially for older children. However, in condemning the formal education system we should not forget its extreme relevance in eliminating child labour. If it is felt that they system requires improvements, it should be done for the education systems as a whole and not just in isolated pockets through special programmes meant for working children.  The large number of intellectuals and policy makers who have been recommending vocational and craft based education for working children have never suggested its implementation across the board and to the schools catering to the urban middle class.  As a result, vocational and craft based education whenever adopted for older children above 14 years has always ended up not only as being treated as a poor child's educational programme but also being implemented as such. What is required, therefore, is to draw on the advantages provided by the formal education system in regard to reduction of child labour and address improvements to the educational system as a whole rather than just that part which deals with working children. 

Compulsory Education Law

The issue of compulsory education has always been something of an enigma. At the theoretical level, very few find fault with the concept that all children should receive education, at least up to the primary stage or with the fact that children should not work. In fact, the State has committed itself not only to universalization of primary education but also to the abolition of child labour through various pronouncements, no least of all the directive principles of State Policy, enshrined in the Constitution of India. This has been further strengthened by the fact that the Convention on the Rights of the Child based on the UN General Assembly resolution provides for a variety of rights to the child including the right to compulsory and free primary education. Ins spite of all this, the general attitude of the policy planners has been that the country cannot afford the distraction of a compulsory education norm. A number of reasons are given for this, but two major objections are worth noting. The first questions the role of the State in deterring the manner in which the children are to be educated. The second stresses the non-implementability or such legislation which would remain only on paper. 

As far as the first objection is concerned, in a society where the State has always been playing a very large role in shaping the social behavior o the citizens through legislative means, it would be difficult to question the desirability of the state's intervention through legislation in this matter alone. When we talk about the Indian society today, we talk of a society which has seen legislation on issues ranging from a minimum age of marriage to protection of civil rights and abolition of untouchability. For the State to legislate on an issue concerning a child's right to development, therefore, would not be something out of the ordinary. 

The second objection, however, merits a more detailed examination. It has been observed that in this country a large number of laws governing social issues have been passed which have never really been implemented. Although the legislation set out to achieve laudable social goals, the State has not been able to put them into effect. Any number of examples ranging from the SITA to BLSA are cited to illustrate this. A legislation to provide compulsory education, therefore, is most likely to meet  a similar fate. Further, it is argued, as previous experience with legislation governing compulsory education has shown, there is a greater likelihood of the act turning into an instrument of harassment of parents. 

These arguments view the issue from one perspective only, viz. that of the State apparatus. A State apparatus whose understanding of the problem is flawed by its own limitations and to whom compulsory legislation not only implies a large enforcement machinery helplessly pursuing reluctant parents to ensure attendance in schools but also creation of, at heavy cost, infrastructural facilities which at today's levels of demands cannot be utilized. The facto of the matter, however is tat, notwithstanding the claims of the government that more than 97% of the children have been provided access to schools, the established infrastructure cannot cater to the full requirement of even the demand that exists. This is because development of infrastructure has been a function of budgetary allocation rather than of demand. Once the logic of the harsh reality of child labour is accepted, low allocation to the primary education sector especially in the rural areas can always be rationalized as being a response to the low projected demand for schools.  Similarly, it is only when once accepts the absence of demand for education, legislation are an instrument for forcing unwilling parents to send their children to school. Thus, any assessment which assumes the reality of child labour, harsh or otherwise is bound to lead not only to low per capita investment in the sector but also to the view that compulsory education laws are unimplementable.

Legislation of this nature has for long played the role of compelling the State to take action. The Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976 (BLSA), for instance, has proved to be an extremely powerful weapon for institutions such as non-government organization to deal with the problem of child bonded labour, in situation where the State has not been prepared to take action. Thus, even though existence of a legislation does not automatically imply that is objectives would be achieved, it creates an enabling provision whereby the State can be compelled to take action. At the very least such legislation are assertions of the desire of the state to promote an ideal and a progressive value system. More important, these legislation provide others working in the field with a legitimacy which otherwise would not exist. The importance of this aspect would be fully appreciated when on considers the number of occasions the state has been compelled to act through the use of the BLSA to release bonded children. Thus, while administrators and academicians may lament on their non-implementability the fact remains that legislations of this nature have the power to compel the State to act. A legislation to provide for compulsory education, therefore, would be of immense significance in situations where the State does respond to the requirements of the people. It has already been seen that the government response to the problem of illiteracy and child labour has been quite equivocal. On the other hand, experience in the field has shown that there exists an enormous unrecognized demand for formal education and that parents are willing to make sacrifices to utilize educational opportunities. As long as the existing infrastructure can meet the demand, there is no crisis but the fact is that more often than not the infrastructure is inadequate. Under the present circumstance, there is a absolutely no way by which the State can be compelled to provide these facilities. A situation thus exists where the same parents and children who have been written off as victims of the 'harsh reality' of socio-economic circumstances ,are demanding educational facilities and the Sate is either unable or unwilling to respond. A legislation binding the Sate to provide compulsory education therefore is absolutely essential. 

Summing Up

To sum up, therefore, what has been put forward in the foregoing is a child labour policy which: 
  1. Defines the target group in the true spirit of Article 32. All non school going children (90 million) are child workers in one form or the other. Agricultural child labour constitutes the core of the problem. Without tackling this issue, the more emotive issue of child labour in hazardous occupations cannot be handled.
  2. Recognizes the fact that a child going to a formal school is a child withdrawn from labour. Child labour policies and education policies have to be formulated and be operated in tandem and not independent of each other.
  3. Adopts a more positive attitude towards child labour. Parents do want their children to be educated and poverty as a limiting factor is highly over-rated. In particular, such a policy recognizes the fact tat even today there are 'poor' parents sending their children to school instead of work. Motivation and availability of infrastructure rather than poverty are the key factors. There is no other explanation as to why factors like parents' educational status make a difference in the literacy level of children.
  4. Realizes that the NFE system cannot be a solution to either the problem of illiteracy or child labour. It is at best a temporary solution which has no relevance unless simultaneously backed by adequate strengthening of the formal education structure.