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‘Retired at Eighteen: Political Economy of Child Labour in India’

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    16th Nov, 2020


Child labourers continue to be employed in large numbers in the country.

Let’s analyse the use of child labour in the textiles and allied industries in India, and the drivers that lead to its prevalence.

What is the current situation of child labour in India?

  • India, home to one-fifth of the world’s children, has the highest rates of child labour.
  • An estimated 33 million children under the age of 18 are engaged in work in various sectors across the country, from domestic service and agriculture, to textiles and mining.
  • The textiles and allied industries are the second largest employers in India after agriculture, with 40 million direct and 60 million indirect employees.
  • As a traditionally labour-intensive industry—where flexible and low-cost labour has driven growth and pushed India’s global competitiveness in the sector—the textiles sector is enabled by the massive use of child labour.
  • The continuing practice of child labour has the potential to jeopardise India’s push for incentivising foreign investments into the sector and integrating into global supply chains.
  • Of the estimated 152 million children under the age of 18 engaged in labour across the world, 73 million are engaged in hazardous work. They can be found in a wide array of industries – from domestic service and agriculture, to more hazardous sectors such as mining.
  • While the number of child labour has declined over the years, child labour in India remains in a massive scale and represents the insidious side of not only domestic, but global supply chains.

What is child labor?

  • The International Labor Organization (ILO), a subsidiary of the United Nations, defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”
  • Child labor extends into many different activities such as agriculture, manufacturing, mining and domestic service (i.e prostitution).
  • Children are forced into child labor because of distinct factors; migration, emergencies, the lack of decent work available and poverty which is known as the most influencing factor. 

Children between ‘14 to 18’: A vicious cycle

  • Current definitions of child labour leave children between 14 to 18 in a limbo.
  • They are considered too young to be adults but old enough to be out of school and in low-paying, low-productivity jobs. 
  • These children will remain underemployed and unemployed in their adult life, until they are eventually replaced by younger, cheaper hands; by then, they would not have nurtured any skills to move to other gainful employment.
  • A vicious cycle is perpetuated, whereby fragmented welfare schemes subsidise them for the rest of their lives.

Child Labour in India’s textiles and allied industries

  • Child labour in India is widely prevalent in the textiles and garments industry.

The industry

  • India is one of the world’s largest producers of textiles, with the industry generating two percent of India’s GDP in 2014-2015.
  • The textiles industry is diverse, ranging from small household enterprises to large garment plants, and has employees in both the organised and unorganised sector.
  • In fact, it is the second largest employer in the country after agriculture, with 40 million direct employees and another 60 million indirect employees.
  • It is a traditionally labour-intensive industry, where flexible and low-cost labour has remained a critical factor in maintaining India’s global competitiveness and subsequent viability.
  • The use of child labour is seen as a method of lowering labour costs.
  • Children are employed in all stages of the process – from cotton-picking, to finishing the product by embellishment and embroidery.
  • Indeed, children under 14 account for almost 25 percent of the total workforce in India’s cottonseed farms.
  • Furthermore, as a considerable proportion of child labour in textiles and allied industries are found to be in household-based enterprises—where regulation and social responsibility is not a major concern—minority and disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected.
  • Child labour is most prevalent in the rural parts of the country and is highest amongst girls, the Muslim community, Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. 
  • However, the proportion is even more highly skewed in the textiles and allied industries, where eight of every 10 child labourers are Muslims.

Child labour and trafficking

  • Much of child labour and trafficking is invisible, but the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records cases filed across the country under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986.
  • An analysis of child labour cases filed in India across the last five years for which data are available shows that the number of cases has gone up from 147 in 2014 to 464 in 2018.
  • The number of cases for which trials got completed also improved over time—from just 10 in 2014 to 78 in 2018.
  • Convictions were made in just three cases in 2014 but the number was 34 in 2018, showing an improvement.
    • The conviction rate, which was 30 percent in 2014, increased to 43.6 percent in 2018.

How child labour becomes a ‘roadblock’ to India’s Human Capital Accumulation?

  • Child labour deprives the young of their rights and dignity, and robs them of the opportunity to fulfil their full potential.
  • The practice of child labour has significant implications for human capital development and great opportunity costs for India’s ability to develop its human resources.
  • Vicious cycle of poverty: While in the short term it may seem that child labour increases household incomes, the practice perpetuates the cycle of poverty through reduced human capital accumulation.
  • Serious health issues: Child labour has serious physical and psychological health impacts caused by long hours of work and unsafe working conditions.
    • Children employed in the zari (embroidery) sector, for example, suffer from damaged eyesight and hands by the time they reach adolescence (14-18) from working long hours in rooms that do not have proper lighting.
  • Lack of education and skills: The health issues are compounded by the lack of education and skills resulting from being out of school.
  • Indeed, the use of children for their economic output in their most vulnerable stages have immense implications.
    • Micro level: On a micro level, low levels of health and education will lead to poor-paying jobs in adulthood, which will further increase the chances of their children to be forced into child labour, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
    • Macro level: On a macro level, the skills gap created by uneducated children will add to the already high rates of youth unemployment and leave them at the mercy of the welfare system, in turn slowing down India’s long-term growth.

Eliminating Child Labour in India: Legal Challenges

  • If India is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8, which calls for the promotion of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, the country must prioritise the abolition of child labour.

Recent initiatives taken by Government

  • To be sure, India has already made significant strides in the fight against child labour.

International treaties

  • It is signatory to a wide gamut of international conventions and treaties that aim to cease the practice of child labour.
  • Most recently, in 2017, the country signed two ILO conventions concerning the ‘Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour’ and the ‘Minimum Age for Admission to Employment’.
  • With India’s ratification, almost all of the world’s children are covered by both these conventions, enhancing global efforts on abolishing child labour.

India’s current legislative architecture

  • To its credit, India has passed several laws throughout the last century prohibiting child labour, the most notable of which is the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.
    • The law, albeit controversial, contained a particular set of occupations and processes where children under the age of 15 were prohibited from being employed.
  • The 2016 amendment to the Act expanded the ambit of the legislation to adolescents (15-18).
    • The amendment prohibits all forms of labour for children under the age of 15 except in the case of family businesses and home-based enterprises.
    • It further prohibits hazardous adolescent labour in only three sectors – mining, explosives, and those occupations mentioned in the Factory Act.
    • There are several caveats to this amendment – the first and most important is that the law ignores the realities of which it seeks to legislate upon.

Other interventions

India’s intervention remains key in eradicating child labour.

  • In the context of the garments industry, India has already granted sweeping incentives and investments and the textiles and garments industries currently have 100-percent FDI.
  • Furthermore, the Make in India Programme has several initiatives to
    • develop state-of-the-art infrastructure and upgrade current machinery
    • create environment-friendly processing units
    • harness skill development of textile weavers
    • assist textile exporters in exporting to specific markets

Assessing the legislative inefficiencies

  • India’s legislative framework has focused predominantly on the nexus between education and child labour and has neglected to address the concomitant health issues.
  • The Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojna (PMJAY) scheme should bring about changes going forward and be incorporated within the child labour legal framework ensuring coverage and health protection to high-burden areas in particular.
  • While the new draft National Education Policy has committed to free and compulsory quality secondary education to adolescents, the implementation strategy, yet again, fails to anchor on reality.
  • Access to capital remains a key barrier to eradicating child labour and even within a supposedly ‘free’ education system, ‘fixed private costs’ such as transport and study materials cause many families to pull their children out of school.
  • Furthermore, direct cash transfers to working families are more effective in eradicating child labour than incentives such as mid-day meals.
  • A similar trend can be found in a study of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which found cases of adolescents working at worksites to supplement family income.

The legislative inefficiencies highlighted in the preceding paragraphs have made it clear that it is necessary to visit child labour from an economic lens as opposed to viewing it simply as a human rights issue.

Concluding thoughts

In India, the perverse nature in which child labour works is subsidising India’s inefficiencies—from perpetuating the insidious inequities that run across the country, hindering human capital development, and underscoring its legal inadequacies.

As a country, we need to realise that educated children do have an important role in establishing sustainable change. Education is the only effective tool to eradicate child labour in India.


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