Indian child laborers: no escape from the vicious circle

It has been three years since the Indian government banned the employment of children. However, it is still disturbingly widespread, and UNICEF says millions of them are working in extremely dangerous conditions.

India has the largest population of child workers in the world, with an estimated 40 million to 100 million children forgoing education to earn money.

“The child labor problem in India is of a scale that is often not even acknowledged, because it is so invisible. We can look at factories where children work, but we don’t look at agricultural labor. We don’t look at domestic labor to the extent that India should be looking at,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, Senior Researcher from Human Rights Watch.

“There’s a sense of almost justifying it by saying that these children would otherwise be starving and therefore it’s fine to employ them – except that the conditions of that employment are dangerous.”

India has laws in place to protect children and bans the employment of anyone under the age of 14 in several industries, but the law remains ineffective. Often it is sheer poverty that drives children to work.

“I want to study but we have no money,” says little Feroz smiling. He sells coconuts in the street and looks no more than seven years old. “That’s why I work, and help run our household.”

Poor families see their children as breadwinners. Instead of sending Arjun to school, his mother Parvati sets him to work. He may earn a mere two dollars a week, but for the family it is a question of survival.

“We can’t get two meals a day. We earn barely enough the whole day to feed ourselves, how can we educate our children? At least they help me. With more hands to work we can earn enough for dinner. If the children didn’t work, they’d just waste their time, and I’d have no one to help me,” says Parvati Devi.

Meenakshi Ganguly says using child labor is not only harmful for their health but also traps them in a vicious circle of unemployment and poverty:

“Health issues are the primary concern. The fact that a lot of these are hazardous industries and therefore children’s health becomes impaired. The other is: a child does grow up. And then he’s out of a job because another child comes and takes that job. So you’re not creating a workforce, you’re essentially limiting that workforce to a capacity to work for only a few years.”

A non-government organization “Bachpan bachao Andolan” has rescued over 77,000 child workers from sweatshops in the past three decades. They are rehabilitated at special schools. But this is just the tip of the iceberg – homelessness is another problem.

“Every month 100 more children come here, and we would like them to go back to their homes at the same rate. They do. But there are around 50 children here who have no home address, and no knowledge of their families’ whereabouts. We try to trace their families. We also educate them further so that, by the age of 18, they can stand on their own feet,” explains Parmanand Choudhary from Apnaghar children’s home.

Once freed from the shackles of work, child workers have some hope of reliving their childhood. However, charity workers admit that most of the children rescued are likely to find themselves forced back into a life of bondage.