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Lost Childhood: Child Labour in India

Updated on January 26, 2016


She was holding the doll and admiring it longingly. “Nice doll”, I smiled. She smiled back,” It is hers,” pointing to a child of three. She was the child’s ‘Nanny’. There was not much difference in the age of the two. She could not have been more than ten and looked smaller for her age due to malnourishment. But she was happy because she could hold the doll for a few seconds. With a sigh and smile, she handed the doll to the child.

Startling facts by International Labor Organization- 168 million children are engaged in exploitive child labor worldwide. This phenomenon is not unique to developing nations only, European nations are also experiencing it. ILO has declared two days as the Child Labor Days in the year- 31st January and June 12th, in order to highlight the issue and plight of children facing exploitation.

We, the people of India, come across child labor with such frequency that we have forgotten to look at it with distress and alarm. Dhabas (roadside eating place in India) on the roadside frequently have boys serving food, washing dishes and running errands. Households have boys or small girls, doing cleaning, washing, cooking, taking care of babies etc. Cotton, carpet, construction, brick kilns, sports equipment, tobacco are some of the industries where child labor is rampant, though invisible to the eyes of the consumer. Agriculture sector also has its share of child labor. Worst form of child labor is prostitution, bonded labor and in hazardous industries. The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act 1986 aims to prohibit the entry of children into hazardous occupations and to regulate the services of children in non hazardous occupations but still a significant portion of children in the country are engaged in such activities.

Ministry of statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India; notes that approximately 12.66 million children between age group 5 to 14, in India, are engaged in child labor; which is approximately 12% of the population in this age group. Of these children 21% are engaged in tobacco industry ( paan, bidi, cigarette) and more than 15% are in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, nearly 85 per cent of child laborers in India are hard to reach, invisible and excluded, as they work largely in the unorganized sector, both rural and urban, within the family or in household based units.


Basic reason is poverty. When the family income is far below the expenditure for minimal food; the only option is to send the child for work—as soon as possible. Apart from getting two squares of meal the child brings home extra pennies, vital for the survival of the younger members of the family.

Lack of education and awareness adds to the woes as the number of off springs far exceeds the financial ability to raise them.

Gender inequalities, lack of proper healthcare facilities, social ills like alcoholism etc. aggravate the situation.


There are solutions but none of them is hundred percent effective or implementable with fast results. There is no quick fix formula.

Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan (Universal Education Project of Govt. of India) is an attempt to alleviate the grim situation in India. But its success is marred by controversies like poor quality of food, meager quantity, lack of outreach to all corners of the country, siphoning off of food material etc. Also SSA provides just one meal and definitely no further income. In many households, elder kids are required to take care of their younger siblings, eliminating their chances of going to school. Immediate needs take precedence over long term gains.

Government emphasis on paperwork like birth certificate, address proof etc. also are bottlenecks as in villages, many babies are born at home. Parents do not have the confidence, knowledge and time to go through the rigmarole of bureaucracy. Hence no school for such kids either.

The attempt to contain this ill should have two directional strategy. On one side children need to be targeted not only for studies but also for professional courses which help in employment; on the other, parents need to be made aware of the importance of education in the long run.

Awareness generation for adults is a prime concern at the preliminary stage. That requires emphasis on adult education and adult capacity building. So that parents can earn enough to have dignified living without depending on children’s income.

Health care facilities help in two ways- one it provides the option to plan family; and secondly mortality rate falls and gives confidence to the poorer sections to accept lesser number of progeny. Gender inequalities need to be decreased so that wish for male child should not lead to large family size. Social ills like dowry also need to be addressed, which force the parents to augment their income and savings.

Problem is not merely economic, it requires social changes also. Solutions require slow and steady handling. It also requires dedication, as centuries old established beliefs are not easily changed. Step by step- thinking needs to be moulded to bring about a new tomorrow.

In the words of Alexis Herman, former US Secretary of Labor

”If we can't begin to agree on fundamentals, such as the elimination of the most abusive forms of child labor, then we really are not ready to march forward into the future.”


(1) CHILDREN IN INDIA 2012,- A Statistical Appraisal , Social Statistics Division,Central Statistics Office, Ministry of statistics and Programme Implementation,Government of India

(2) You Have the Power to End Child Labour – Find Out How”, from -how/ on 31st Jan., 2014; retrieved on Feb.5, 2014

(3) Herman, Alexis. (n.d.)., from Web site:, Retrieved February 5, 2014


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