Chintu, a 13-year-old boy, lived in a small village on the outskirts of a major city in India. He was a bright boy and loved studying. His parents were sweepers who earned a meagre wage. They worked day and night to provide food for the family. He enjoyed playing with his sisters in the evening. But one day, his father succumbed to COVID-19. His family was distraught. But the financial strain was greater. Eventually, it was decided by the family that Chintu would leave his studies. He went to the city and started working with his uncle as a waiter in a restaurant. His evenings are no longer filled with fun and enjoyment. Sometimes when he sees kids going to school, he thinks to himself, isn’t it a privilege to pursue what you want in life?.
The story of Chintu is not unique. There are many Chintus in our country who are forced into employment. According to the child labour (Prohibition and Regulation)Act, 1986, employing a child below the age of 14 is a criminal offence. Children between the ages of 14 to 18 are adolescents. But they cannot be employed in hazardous occupations like mining, work related to explosives and factories according to the Factories Act, 1948.
Yet, we see many children pushed into jobs by their families. This raises a question: Why do children work?
A common but undisputed belief is that children are compelled into employment because of poverty. The study of the geographic distribution of child workers and the economic history of certain regions associate child work with lower household incomes. Child work becomes a necessity when the income from it is needed for the survival of the household. Poor living conditions and the lack of job opportunities can compel impoverished families to send their children to work instead of schools. Children are also at risk of child trafficking as they are sold by their parents to earn money. Child labour deprives a child of his or her right to education. This also maintains a cycle of intergenerational poverty.
According to a report by Unicef in 2011, there are about 28 million child workers in India. The majority of these children are not always forced into labour by their parents or kept as slaves. They work because they need money to survive. The issue of child labour cannot be solved by simple solutions or legislation alone. It is a complex issue that is driven by a society where women don’t have a choice in the matters of family planning. A family can sometimes push their children into labour because of their inability to feed them. Children in bigger cities are employed in businesses like tailor shops or restaurants. This ensures that they are paid as well as get enough meals. This serves as a better alternative to prostitution and begging. Also, poverty can cause families to borrow money from moneylenders for religious or social events. The families then depend on their children to pay off their debts.
The limited access to quality educational services can also force the parents to make their kids drop out of schools. Even though the government promotes the Right to Education, it is unable to implement it in practice. The government schools lack basic amenities such as clean toilets and clean drinking water. They also lack qualified teachers that can provide good education. Only 54 per cent of schools have separate toilets for girls. This can lead to girls dropping out of schools once they start menstruating. On the other hand, private schools do not have the will or the financial resources to support poor students under RTE. Instead of sending their kids to school, parents feel children should learn the family trade and pass it on to future generations. This may involve working in making bangles, pottery, etc. They do not see education as affordable. Even though education is free, there is still an opportunity cost as children can spend the same amount of time earning money, just to fill their stomachs, often with just a meal per day. Sometimes, chances of getting admission in a good school can be compromised by corruption. This further reduces motivation to enroll kids in schools.
However, this doesn’t mean that child labour should be carried on. Instead, viable alternatives to the problem of child labour should be explored. The educational system should be improved and more facilities should be made available to students. But, child labour should not be treated as only an economic issue. It is both a social and political problem. It brings forth the issue of social responsibilities and sensibilities in our society. The extent of child labour in certain workplaces lead to social degradation in the long run. As a society, we must tackle child labour with a multifactorial approach. We should internalise the social and ethical concerns of child labour. This will enable many Chintus to accomplish their dreams.