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This is the classic “Poverty Argument”. The answer to this question depends on how you frame it. If the question is, ”Is it not true that if a family is extremely poor and is in desperate straits then the parents would need to send their child to work?” Then the answer of course is ‘YES’.
However, if the question is “Are all families now sending their children to work so poor that they need their child’s income in order to survive?” the answer is an emphatic ‘NO’. The tragedy of the child labour situation in this country is that it is simply assumed that every labourer is working because it is an issue of survival for the family. This is the most insidious aspect of the Poverty Argument. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The Poverty Argument for all its appearance of being logical is completely flawed. Interestingly enough it is not even easy to prove. If it were true then in every village the poorest should drop out from school first and enter the labour market. However, rural areas are full of examples of children belonging to very poor families who are in school while their relatively better off counterparts are working.
A large number of factors that have nothing to do with the economics of the situation, such as tradition, ignorance of parents on account of illiteracy, lack of access to alternatives, insensitive administration and so on govern the decision of the family to send a child to work or to school. The Poverty Argument ignores all these aspects and views every thing as a purely economic decision.
Parents are willing and capable of sending their children to school. That is the simple part but there are a whole lot of complex issues as well. In the first place to poor parents, especially those belonging to the communities traditionally engaged in agricultural labour who by and large are they illiterate, the very task of sending their child to school instead of to work is in itself a major revolutionary step. For generations they have been led to believe that the best thing for them is to initiate their child into work at the earliest and education was never a part of their economic agenda. This is exactly the opposite of what a middle class urban parent believes. Just as in the latter case it never occurs to the parents that their child should be sent to work, to a parent in the rural area who is essentially an agricultural labourer and an illiterate to boot, sending a child to work is the most natural thing in the world. The parents know exactly what is to be done, who to approach, how to negotiate and above all what is expected from their child if sent to work.
Compare this with the complex situation that parents have to face in admitting the child to school. Birth certificate, caste certificate, schoolbooks, dress and so on all have to be obtained. Often the child is denied admission simply because such admission is being sought in August while all admissions close in July itself. And, of course, if for some reason the child has crossed the normal school age of 5-7 years there is absolutely no provision for allowing him/her to join in a higher class under an accelerated program, and he has to sit in the first class along with much younger children and often be made fun of for it. It is no exaggeration to say that for these parents it is much easier to engage their child as bonded labourer with some landlord than enroll him/her in school.
Once inside the school the whole attitude of the teacher is completely mysterious as far as the parents are concerned. They are not sure how to handle the child’s homework and the other demands made of them by the teacher. The teacher themselves are an unknown quantity and often behave irrationally. It has been MVF’s experience that a larger number of children have been pushed out than have dropped out from school. Teachers employ a number of methods to restrict the number of children in their class. Even a simple thing like not reading a child’s name during roll call is enough to perplex the child and the parents. Add to this issues like asking the child to get a new book or learn a poem at home or simply state at the end of the year that the child is not up to the mark, you have a good recipe for a push out. In one of the MVF’s workshop with teachers an entire list of methods employed by them to restrict the number of children in their class was made out.
Even if the parents and the child survive this onslaught initially, there is always the nagging feeling often reinforced by others in the village that may be they should simply continue what they have been doing for generations viz. sending their children to work.
Given the atmosphere that prevails at the village level therefore, mere desire to provide education for the child is not enough to convert it into a reality. On the other hand ignoring this desire would be catastrophic.
There are several reasons for this. The main one is that when it comes to children of ‘poor’ parents, policy makers tend to think that there is something inevitable about a child working. They believe that the child is working because the family is dependent on the income earned by the child for survival. They believe that if the child is withdrawn from work the family will starve. Child labour in their opinion is a ‘harsh reality’.
This belief that child labour is inevitable and nothing can be done about it colours all aspects of child labour policy in India. It is mainly responsible for the view that the best approach is to attack the most exploitative forms of child labour first. Children in various ‘hazardous’ industries present themselves as the most exploited. They are also the most visible. As a result the emphasis has been on child labour in these industries, almost to the exclusion of all other forms of child labour. Child labour in the agriculture sector in particular has been ignored.
The other reason why this aspect has been ignored is that policy makers and program implementers tend to get bogged down by numbers. They are completely intimidated by the every large number of child labourers in agriculture. ”What will happen if all children engaged in agriculture work stop working?” As a result the tendency is to justify child labour in this sector either by ignoring its presence altogether or by not classifying it as child labour at all but as being child work, which is good for the child.
If policy makers decide that only children in hazardous industries should be dealt with, they just aren’t interested in any child labourer outside the 2 million groups. The reality however is that 85% of child labour, whichever way you define it, is in agriculture and allied activities.
As per official estimates, all other child labour which constitutes the ‘visible’ child labour in factories, street children, children working in hotels and petty establishments etc account for a very small percentage of the total child labour force in this country. This factor is completely ignored.
The fact that we have almost completely ignored this aspect of child labour in agriculture is the root cause for our failure to make any dent in the child labour situation in the country even after 5 decades of independence.
It is estimated that there are about 2 million children working in the so-called hazardous industries. If one were to define child labour as wage earning work alone, the official estimates are around 12.6 million (Census 2001) and 4.98 million (NSSO survey, 2009-10).
However, if one were to define all children out of school as child labour, the figure would be closer to 80 million (Census 2001).
India has the dubious distinction of having the largest child labour force in the world. It is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s working children are in India. The implications of this situation are enormous.
It means that nearly 50% of the children in this country are deprived of their right to childhood and destined to end up as illiterate workers with no opportunity to fulfill their true potential. No country in this situation can hope to achieve anything significant.