A Total Ban On Children’s Work by Nandana Reddy

Posted on January 03, 2013

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A recent decision by the Union Cabinet that approved a proposal to amend the Child Labour [Prohibition and Regulation] Act 1986 and enforce a blanket ban on the employment of children below the age of 14 in all occupations and processes, hazardous and non-hazardous has been welcomed by NGOs and educationalists alike. The Bachpan Bachao Andolan has hailed it as a “remarkable success” and Save the Children call it a “step in the right direction”. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral of HAQ claims it as a “huge milestone in the journey as a child rights activist”. However, even the euphoria of these hardliners is tinged with words of caution and they qualify their jubilation with the caveat that “we need to focus on the implementation of the law” perhaps recognising that it has not been possible to implement the existing law, and even Kailash Satyarthi cautions that “merely making a law one cannot prevent social injustice and crime.” But amidst all this babble the voices of serious critics have been lost.

It is a given that no child should be engaged in any work that does not contribute to her/his growth and development and that every child should have access to quality education. There is absolutely no disagreement regarding this end. This goal is not just praiseworthy because of its altruistic stance, but because these are the rights of every child and the obligation of the state and all its citizens. The problem is with the means to reach this end. And this is where the debate and the discord stem. The 1986 Child Labour Policy and the strategy on which it is based are flawed and the dismal implementation track record has proved it, but the government is immune to both criticism and reality, and ostrich-like digs itself deeper into the sands of deception.

But then we have become a black and white world where only two extreme options exist. For example, if you are for Anna Hazare you must be against corruption; but if you question Anna’s agenda or the efficacy of the Lokpal Bill, you must be for corruption! There is no room for debate on other possible means to achieve the same end and all debate is silenced consigning us into the barrenness of intellectual poverty and simplistic engagement.

But for the sake of our children, let us pause for a moment and examine the situation with all the grey areas in-between from the perspective of working children themselves, the ones who are on the front line and directly affected by this act and policy.

There are two interlinked rights [constitutional provisions] that are in focus here; one the right to education; and the other, the right to be protected from economic exploitation and moral and material abandonment.


To a child, the first, the right to education should mean that s/he should have access to an education irrespective of her/his situation or condition. If s/he is disabled and unable to attend school, education should be brought to her/his door step; if s/he is visually impaired, learning aids should be made available in school; if s/he is above the age of 14 years and permitted by law to work s/he should have access to evening schools; if s/he is a child of a migrant community, s/he should be able to enroll even for a short span in a school where s/he is transiting.

However, most formal public schools are from 9 to 5, do not have aids for the blind and cannot handle the mentally challenged. There are no night schools for working children and vocational training is hard to come by. The quality of education imparted is so low that not even the minimum levels of learning are reached. The curriculum is so removed from real life that few life or other skills are imparted and the degree of abstraction renders it impossible for a child to be employable even after completing 10 years of schooling. At best, s/he will be barely literate, but worse, delinked from his/her natural roots and oral traditions, the child will be a misfit.

Our formal education system that takes up all the waking hours of a child barely provides literacy. But by removing the child from his/her community for such a large part of each day it succeeds in distancing the child from learning the rules of socialisation, oral traditions and history, craft and traditional skills.

Learning is fundamental and inseparable from engagement in the world. Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities; learning is how people gain membership and participation in community. Learning is an act of membership; motivation in learning lies in the intimate relation between the desire for participation and the role of new knowledge in enabling that participation. Knowing depends on engagement in practice, only in the classroom is knowledge presented in the abstract. Engagement is inseparable from empowerment. Failure to learn is the result of exclusion from participation; people denied membership with the right to contribute in the creation of meaning cannot sufficiently engage to learn easily.1.

The Right to Education Act [RTE] has twisted this right. Instead of making it compulsory on government to fulfill their obligation to provide every child an education and to create the conditions in which the child can do so, it has made it compulsory for every child to go to school irrespective of the quality or relevance of that education. It is like saying that all women have the right to employment and therefore must be employed.

However, implicit in the notion of the rights is the element of choice. Any form of compulsion is contrary to this principle. Many children do not have the luxury of choice as the economic compulsions for survival are so great that they have to work. It should therefore be obligatory for the State to provide the conditions whereby a child can go to school, instead of making it compulsory on children and penalising parents.


`All compulsion is hateful to me.  I would no more have the nation become educated by compulsion than I would have it become sober by such questionable means.  But just as I would discourage drink by refusing to open drink shops and closing existing ones, so would I discourage illiteracy by removing obstacles in the path and opening free schools and making them responsive to the people’s needs.…….I am not even sure that the experiment in compulsory education has been uniformly successful wherever it has been tried. If the majority wants education, compulsion is wholly unnecessary. If it does not, compulsion would be most harmful. Only a despotic Government passes laws in the teeth of the opposition of a majority…….We have been compulsion-ridden for the past hundred years or more. The State rules our life in its manifold details without our previous sanction.
It is not reasonable to assume that the majority of parents are not so foolish or heartless as to neglect the education of their children even when it is brought to their doors free of charge.’ – M.K. Gandhi, Extract from Young India, 1924

The artificial pressure of compulsion brings to bear an unfair burden and strain on poor parents who are prevented from making the ‘best’ choice from the limited options available to them for the present and the future; without changing their circumstances, nor addressing the issue of poverty or unemployment. Compulsion works only as long as the pressure lasts and is micro-monitored. Once the pressure is lifted it is like a coiled spring that goes back to its original state with ferocity.

Education cannot be seen in isolation from children’s lives and the pressures they face. It is only through a holistic approach to solving children’s problems that universalisation of education can be achieved and all children are enabled to benefit from an education that is appropriate, of high quality, relevant and interconnected to their lives and aspirations.

For decades numerous reasons have been cited for the failure of the education system. Far too much emphasis on textbooks that seldom deal with what the students face in their homes nor do they inculcate pride in their surroundings. The higher they go, the farther they are removed from their surroundings. Another reason was the poor educational profile of the elementary teacher. On these counts there has been improvement in the last decade but much more stills needs to be done.

However the real and underlying reason that was never really spelt out was the total lack of relevance of the education system to the majority of children’s lives. In a country like India, that has an estimated 126 million working children, it is important to evaluate the system on the following lines:

  1. Is education a means of eradicating child labour?
  2. Is it accessible to child workers?
  3. Does it improve the quality of life?
  4. Does the child become more productive?
  5. Does it lessen oppression?
  6. Does it result in better employment opportunities?
  7. Does it have an impact on marriageable age/family size etc?
  8. Does it lead the way to higher social status, social mobility?
  9. Does it promote an improved civic sense?
  10. Does it promote equality?

On most counts the Indian system fails. First of all it fails to reach more than 23% of the total child population so the questions do not even apply. For those children it does reach it barely passes muster. It cannot guarantee that a child who survives the system is more productive, less oppressed or more employable.

In an increasingly consumerist world where competition is alive and well and it is the survival of the fittest, it seems strange that education is viewed differently. Education is peddled as the wonder wand that solves all social, political and economic evils; it is provided free with added incentives such as mid-day meals, free uniforms and text books and yet we have so few takers. This is not because education is not valued, now even the poorest and most uneducated parents value education and see it as a path to prosperity and if their situation permits and they can find the resources they opt for private education. However, they do not see this being provided by public schools.

Poor parents have two options for ‘education’. Those who have no surplus to sustain a long term education for their child would opt for avenues of skill formation and would look for the possibility of unofficial apprenticeships in automobile workshops or small scale industries; while those who have some economic surplus would opt for a private school that is either English medium or teaches English well. The other subjects are irrelevant except when aiming for a degree be it engineering, accountancy, the medical or legal profession or the latest fad, bio-technology.

There are also several other problems with the RTE Act. Many educationalists and child rights activists disapproved of the State passing the buck on to parents and using compulsion to enforce a ‘right’. It is clear now, the way the Implementation of the Act is panning out that government has shed their responsibilities. The spate of government schools closures, the transferring of a State obligation to private schools and thereby encouraging privatisation of education and holding parents, irrespective of their situation, responsible.

To enable government to enforce the RTE [should be renamed as the Compulsory Education Act], the anomalies between the Child Labour Act and The Right to Education Act had to be corrected. And without considering the pros and cons, the minimum age for any form of employment has now been increased to 14 to coincide with the age of primary schooling. These abstract exercises to ensure compatibility on paper notwithstanding the reality on the ground are pure semantics that are then promoted by the hardliners as a crusade for children’s rights.

Myron Weiner in his book ‘The Child and the State in India: Child Labour and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective’ [1991] says that “Compulsory primary education is the policy instrument by which the state effectively removes children from the labour force. The state thus stands as the ultimate guardian of children, protecting them against both parents and would-be employers.” This would possibly work in a country like Russia or Israel where the state takes complete charge of children including their shelter, food, clothing and parenting, but in India we stop half way. We make it compulsory and leave the rest to parents and expect them to fend for themselves.

The Save the Children chief executive officer Thomas Chandy believes that “The decision to ban all forms of child labour below 14 years will also strengthen the enforcement of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which mandates free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of 6-14 years and is also in line with the International Labour Organisation convention on child labour that seeks to provide minimum age of employment and says that no children below the age of 14 should be employed”.

These two rights are interlinked and the Acts therefore should really compliment and support each other not necessarily by being uniform, but by filling the gaps in each other and most of all, by doing what is best for the child. These rights are also governed by overarching principles contained in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child to which India is a signatory. But these two acts violate several articles of this convention.  It is therefore ironic that ‘child rights crusaders’ conveniently side step this in their zeal to bring conformity between the two acts and the ILO convention on child work.


But let us now closely examine the Child Labour [Prohibition and Regulation] Act 1986 and the proposed amendment. At present the Act permits children under the age of 14 to work in ‘non-hazardous industries’ including some agricultural work. This new amendment would mean that children below the age of 14 can do no work at all! Since 1986 India has not been able to enforce the existing Act and the number of working children aged 5 to 14 has gone up from 111 million in 19852 to 126 million in 20013. This new amendment will be even more difficult to enforce and will only push children further into more invisible, unmonitored and therefore hazardous situations.

On the contrary, in the USA and Europe, Summer Jobs for Kids are widely advocated. There are more than three hundred websites promoting the advantages of work for children as young as 5 years old. Kathy Peel known as ‘America’s Family Manager’ offers advice and smart solutions to create a ‘Happy and Organised Home’. She says “Starting from the time our two oldest boys were 9 and 5, they had to earn and save money for big purchases and summer camp. In those early days they had flower-bulb-selling and porch-and driveway-sweeping businesses. As they grew they worked at odd jobs and ran their own businesses, and they also acquired great experience: They learned to communicate with adults in a professional manner, realised the importance of being responsible when working for others, and discovered creative ways to advertise. They also learned to delay gratification, found out how to make good financial decisions, and acquired an appreciation for what things cost. Finally, they experienced the satisfaction of knowing what it is to do a job well.”

It must be pointed out that till date the US has not ratified the ILO minimum Age convention 138 in order to protect children’s right to work below the age of 14 years. They have also not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child!

In India we are confused. We have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986; with all its shortcomings, was intended to protect children for hazardous occupations and prevent employers from exploiting children, but it was also supposed to provide children with protected ways to acquire vocational skills, avenues of safe employment and the possibility to familiarise themselves with the world of commerce. A Draft Bill proposed by the Concerned for Working Children in 1985 went beyond the Act in several respects. The Bill proposed a large developmental component and the possibility of integrating work and education both in the formal curriculum and also with the setting up of ‘Flexi Schools’. It also recommended that children be prepared for the world of work – especially as the law allowes children to work above the age of 14 years. It also suggested that the provisions of the ‘Apprenticeship Act’ be explored, and the safety and educational components improved and fine tuned.

Regrettably, influenced by the WTO, the ILO’s International Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour [IPEC] and pushed by hardliners in India, strategies have been designed for all children, based on generalised examples of children in hazardous and intolerable forms of labour such as the match and firework industry and sweat shops that account for a very small percentage of the child work force. Progressively more and more sectors and occupations have been added to the banned list and little or nothing has been done about regulating ‘safe’ occupations.  

There is a danger in these generalisations derived from worst case scenarios. It shuts down all avenues of employment – even the safe and developmentally necessary ones. It compels a ‘black and white’ view of the issue that precludes a nuanced approach. This is similar to the fundamentalist views on women. If one woman is raped the remedy is that all women should dress conservatively for their own safety instead of dealing with rapists and enabling a safe environment for women.

The strategy enunciated by the Child Labour Act and Policy is one of imposing a ban and using punitive measures to enforce it. The Child Labour Action Plan further simplifies the strategy by targeting only the demand side of child labour by penalising parents and employers while paying no attention to the supply side and the causes that push children into the work force, such as poverty, poor quality education, few options for vocational training and the increasing scarcity of good public schools due to closure.

Mahesh [name and all other details changed to protect the child’s identity] a single parent child is 13 and a half. He was studying in the 8th standard in an aided school in Udupi District. During the summer holidays he was working in a small juice and ice cream parlour earning Rs. 100 a day, he was given a meal and a set of clothes and some essentials for school such as note books and writing material. Mahesh has put himself through school like this for the past 5 years.

At the beginning of the summer holidays Mahesh was spotted by an NGO activist and whisked off by the local Child Protection Officer, the Labour Inspector and two plainclothes police men. Though Mahesh tried to explain, no one listened. The next thing he knew was that he was in ‘custody’. His mother was frantic with worry and finally traced him to an NGO shelter. She showed them his marks card but to no avail.

The next day three of the main news papers carried Mahesh’s photograph and personal details. The individuals in the raiding party were named and lauded for their efforts to eradicate child labour. After much pleading by his mother and intervention by other concerned citizens, Mahesh was ‘let off’ and handed over to his mother’s custody with strict instructions that she should NOT allow him to work.

This intervention violated a number of Mahesh’s rights as a child. The NGO and officials had no right to detain Mahesh. They had no right to give his photograph and other details to the media who in turn had no right to publish them. Now Mahesh is at home, he does not want to go back to school; he is not eating properly and refuses to go out. This summer there were at least 8 cases like this in Udupi District alone!

There are many children like Mahesh who work in order to go to school. Unfortunately these are the children that are being targeted as they are visible and the authorities are able to access them.

But what about children like Basamma who live in draught prone underdeveloped Districts of North Karnataka? Increasing poverty coupled with high percentage of illiteracy and unemployment have hampered the development of the region and all efforts made by the Government have failed to address the basic issues of poverty, high rate of illiteracy and unemployment.

A Government survey conducted in 2007 to identify families below the in Gulbarga district showed an increase. Of the 7,23,829 families in the district as per the 2005 survey, in 2007 more that 50% or 4,99,764 families were identified as living below the poverty line a comment on the failure of the Government’s poverty alleviation schemes.

The unemployment rate is high in the district with no major labour intensive industry coming up. The only industry which is thriving is the cement units. However, with new technologies being introduced manpower is being reduced in these factories.

Basamma has very few options, her village does not have a primary school and this is why more than 50 per cent of girls fail to enroll in school; those that do are likely to drop out by the age of 12. Child marriage is rampant and 70% of girls in the age group of 5 to 9 years are illiterate.

Her parents are landless labourers who get work for 100 days a year if they are lucky. Basamma has to supplement the family income and works in the landlord’s house cleaning, collecting water and fodder for the cattle. She also has to do chores for her own family and as early as 6 years old she had to help to gather fuel, fodder and collect water for her family.

Neither the RTE nor the amendment to the Child Labour Act is going to change her situation for the better. And even if it could, enforcement in those remote villages is far from possible.

Labour regulations can only be enforced in the ‘formal’ or ‘organised’ sectors and processes as the enforcement machinery can reach only so far. This has been the primary rationale for all labour legislation. The Child Labour Act also works on this rationale. It only addresses violations and that too the ones that can be identified by the labour machinery. It deals with them once they are spotted but has no remedy for unidentified violations. It does not address prevention and has no scope for long term solutions. It deals with children on a case to case basis and the ‘rehabilitation’ is often worse than the offense. Solutions offered should at the very least be equal to if not better than the present predicament. This is like scooping the spillover from a boiling pot without attempting to remove the fire beneath.

Working children and their families do not conform to the ban voluntarily as it does not address the factors that force children like Basamma to work but deals only with the demand side and hence compulsion is required to ensure enforcement. So children like Basamma who are invisible continue to work. They so what is their remedy?


NGO solutions, especially those based on ‘rehabilitation’ may be better than the state offered solution, but again this is on a case to case basis and all the NGOs in India together could not find alternatives for all the child workers and their families in the country. If that were so, we could have solved poverty by now!

So what is the solution to this enormously complex problem? The solution has to work both in the short term and the long term and have to complement and feed into each other. Strategies have to respond to the specifics of each situation and have to be multi pronged. They also have to address the causes, such as poverty and unemployment in the long term and they have to be child rights friendly.

The strategy that the Concerned for Working Children adopted in several Panchayats in Karnataka that has resulted in ‘Child Labour Free Panchayats’ is as follows:

1) Break up the problem into small manageable portions: When you consider that India has 126 million working children the problem seems enormous. However, if the problem is broken up into smaller portions such as Panchayats in rural areas and wards in urban areas it becomes less daunting.

2) Local governments as nodal agencies: Empower Local Governments to be responsible for addressing the issue and devolve all the necessary functions, finances, functionaries to them and authorise them to enable a ‘Child Labour Free Panchayat’.

3) Participation – Panch [5] Partite Child Rights Task Force: This would be an interactive platform of government and non-government actors and children, especially working children to enable children’s participation in all matters concerning them. These platforms should be set up by the Grama Panchayats [rural] or Ward Committees [urban] on a Panch Partite model including representatives of (1) Working Children’s Sanghas, School Children’s and Tribal and Migrant Children’s Sanghas; (2) Makkala Mitras (Children’s Friends); (3) Community Leaders and Parents; (4) President and Members of the Grama Panchayat and Government Officials including Teachers/Principals; and (5) Private Development Agencies and NGOs. This Panch Partite Platform will function as a ‘Child Labour Watch’ by generating and analysing information on implementation of policies and programmes, especially with reference to marginalised groups.

This platform together with working and other children will conduct a child labour survey in the village/ward. They will then together design solutions related to providing infrastructure, schemes and programmes related to education, health care and other basic needs and ensure that children are protected against abuse, dangerous and harmful situations and enabled to reach their highest potential.

This would guarantee that working children are intimately involved in designing and approving solutions designed for them.

4) Provision: The Panch Partite Child Rights Task Force would make certain that the children of their village/ward are provided with appropriate quality education, health care and other facilities. Some of the issues identified by children that needed solving in the Panchayats we worked with were: easy access to fuel fodder, water and ration shops. Interestingly these were the same issues that urban children listed: full day anganwadis to be opened near schools so children can drop off their siblings on the way to school and pick them up after; school buses for all school more than a kilometre away, vocational training cum formal education facilities.

Invoking the ‘Apprenticeship Act’ and ensuring that there are safe monitored skill providing establishments for children to learn would go a long way in providing vocational training on the job. The opening of ‘Flexi’ or ‘Extension’ Schools for children who are doing their apprenticeships or working (above 14 years of age) to continue their education and include in the curriculum aspects that prepare children for the world of work (labour rights, information of employment contracts, minimum wages and industrial disputes).

5) Protection: Ensure that villages/wards are safe for children. Help children to map the danger zones in their village/ward and take measures to ensure children’s safety. Danger zones could range from dark wooded stretches on the way to school, to unfenced irrigation tanks, lonely stretches of road, garbage dumps and liquor shops.

The election of Makkala Mitras or children’s friends by the children of a village/ward who would act as an ombudsperson of children’s rights and protect children irrespective of caste, religion or class.

With the above strategy, the Concerned for Working Children, have managed to declare several Panchayats ‘Child Labour Free’ in Karnataka. It took between 5-8 years to achieve this depending on the level of development of a Panchayat, but it was possible and without compulsion!


Law enforcement has never succeeded through compulsion alone and the reason that we have such an abysmal record of implementing the existing Act is because we refuse to recognise the root causes for the supply side of child labour – one of them being poverty; as the Times View says ‘If we lose the war against poverty, we cannot win the battle against child labour’.

Work is a positive ethic and one that should be encouraged and there are also many skills to be learnt from work. India is one of the few countries that have a strong and old tradition of handicrafts. India’s Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Choudhary, the one sane voice in the largely obscurantist cabinet, wants an easing of the child labour ban in occupations and processes that are highly skilled and rich in tradition. She contends that the blanket ban denies children the right to a profession or livelihood by preventing them from picking up vital skills passed on by master craftsmen4.

In the USA a website called Money Smart Kids screams ‘Parents should help their children find ways to earn money’! Sarah Cook, Founder of Raising CEO Kids, believes that finding summer jobs for kids is one of the important steps in knowing how to raise millionaires! Many of the millionaires listed by Forbes worked as children and claim that they got their entrepreneurship from that experience. However, here in India we hide our heads in the sand.

We need to remove our blinkers and move away from this ‘black and white’ perspective and have a more nuanced approach to children and work. Protect children we must, but allowing them the opportunity to experience safe employment while going to school is also important, especially as our education is so one-dimensional providing literacy at best and based on rote learning. Do we want to provide safe opportunities for our children and encourage growth or do we want a stunted generation, good for nothing, virtually unemployable when they are old enough to work and with no entrepreneurship skills?

Nandana Reddy
Founder and Director Development
The Concerned for Working Children


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