That primary education for every child is the best investment that India can make has been recognized in our Constitution. Article 45 of the Indian Constitution provides for free and compulsory education within a time frame. It says:‘The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years’.

Article 46 deals with the promotion of education and economic interests of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other weaker sections; and Article 41 with the right to work and education.

Article 24 as originally proposed by Dr K. M. Munshi prohibited child labour ‘in all forms’, but it was re-cast and re-formulated and reads:‘No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any hazardous employment’.

Article 39(e) speaks of ‘the tender age of children not being abused’ and 39(f) of them being given opportunities and facilities to develop in a free, healthy and dignified manner.

Though more than six decades have passed since 26 January 1950, when the Constitution came into force, the endeavour of the state has not become a reality.This is because, despite rhetoric and mantras, the state has not given universal primary education the priority and financial support it deserves and needs.

Myron Weiner, in his book The Child and the State in India, observed that, in India, education has been largely an instrument for differentiation by separating children according to social class. For this reason, those who control the education system are remarkably indifferent to the low enrolment and high dropout rate among the lowest social classes. The result is one of the highest rates of child labour in the world, one of the lowest rates of school attendance, and a literacy rate that has fallen behind most of the developing world.

Further, the Indian government accepts child labour as a ‘harsh reality’ and proposes that measures be taken to improve working conditions for children rather than to remove them from the work force. The key notion in the child labour policy in India is ‘amelioration’ not ‘abolition’, and in education ‘incentive’ and not ‘compulsion’.

Many officials regard education for the masses not as liberating but as destabilizing. They question the value of compulsion. They say that the state has no right to force children to attend schools and thereby deny parents the benefit of their income. Some point out the economic benefits to the country of child labour, especially in export industries such as carpet weaving, where the manual dexterity of children and their low wages enhance the industry’s capacity to compete in world markets.

It is true that many parents feel that it is better for their 10-year-old to learn to become a carpenter or carpet weaver or to graze cattle and look after the siblings rather than go to school; they think they have no choice and that they need the income and services of the child; and they do not appreciate the advantages gained from schooling. But what do the children themselves think?

A group of girls in a village near Pune, who had been enrolled and then taken out of school to look after their siblings, fetch water and firewood and care for the cattle, said they had left school at the request of their mothers. It was apparent that this was not what they wanted. When questioned further, the children said that they would ensure that their own daughters went to school and would, if necessary, send their babies to their mothers-in-law or a crèche, or arrange for someone else to watch over the smaller children. The cattle would be brought together and someone hired to look after them.

Thus the children clearly did not regard their parents’ decision about their schooling as the correct one, nor did they regard their parents as being without choice in the matter.

Parents must be made aware that investment in the child is more important than the additional income they can get from their children. This is poignantly brought home by the attitude of a particular official who was strongly opposed to child labour. He said:

I belong to a scheduled caste community in the Punjab. We had no land, we were agricultural labourers. We had no money to spend on festivals.At nine my father took me out of school and sent me to work. I rebelled and wanted to stay in school. I even threatened suicide! So, my parents agreed to let me stay in school. I was at the top of my class, so I stayed on in school and went to college. Ultimately, I entered the Indian Administrative Service.

I was the oldest child and other members of my family, my younger brothers and sisters, followed me to school. I don’t think my father was so poor that he had to send me to work, but it was not the custom in his family to send children to school. Many parents do not think, but just send their children to work. If we in the Government emphasise that children should not be sent to work, they will go to school. Now all my children are in college. If I had listened to my father I would still have been working in the village. (Weiner, 1991)

In India there does not appear to be a clear relationship between literacy and per capita income, in the sense of low income being the reason for not sending a child to school. For example, the state of Kerala, which has a very high literacy rate, has a per capita income that is basically no different from that of the rest of the country. Figures indicate that enrolment in schools has increased substantially in other states too. But statistics are very confusing since there is a great difference between mere initial enrolment and continuing in school for a number of years.

A study conducted at the Giri Institute of Social Sciences in Uttar Pradesh indicated that for every 100 children admitted into first grade, only thirty-five passed into fifth grade and only twenty completed eight years of schooling. The majority of dropouts were Muslims and Scheduled Castes; and girls had a particularly low enrolment and high dropout rate.

Further, increase in rural income in western Uttar Pradesh as a result of the Green Revolution did not result in a rise in school enrolment or a decline in dropouts. A direct relationship between enrolment and the number of children in the family, especially in the case of girls, was noticed. For instance, if there were many young siblings, the older children stayed home to take care of younger ones. However, if there was one educated member in the family, then the children were more likely to be kept in school; and they stayed in school if the schools were attractive and had play facilities and programmes that held their interest.

Some people in India feel that we cannot afford to do without the labour of children as we are a poor country. Does that mean that the elimination of poverty is a pre-condition to prohibiting child labour? And does compulsory primary or universal elementary education have to wait till poverty is totally eliminated?

The main argument against compulsory education is that child labour is necessary for the well-being of the poor, since the state is unable to provide relief. The second argument is that education would make the poor unsuited for the kind of manual work that is required to be done. The third argument is that certain industries would be forced to close down if they did not have access to low wage child labour. The last argument against banning child labour and enforcing compulsory education is that the state should not be allowed to interfere with parents’ rights, since parents know what is best for their children and families.

But the real question is: can we afford to have child labour and still talk of tomorrow’s citizens? If ignorance grows, will the child of today have any choices tomorrow? Will he or she not feel trapped?

Take the case of the match factories in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, where labour conditions were horrendous and exploitation of child labour rampant. Even before the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 came into force, child labour was banned in the Sivakasi factories as it involved hazardous employment, but this simply pushed the children from the organized sector into the unorganized sector, where they were less visible.

In M.C. Mehta vs State of Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court held that though children cannot be employed within the match factories directly engaged in the manufacturing process, they can be employed in the process of packing, but it directed that this be done in an area away from the place of manufacture in order to avoid exposure to accidents.

India has a Rs 2,600-crore carpet industry and a large number of children are employed in this industry as manufacturers believe that a child’s nimble fingers are necessary for good weaving. But is the making and exporting of carpets more important than the education and welfare of the child?

There is no doubt that children are a source of cheap labour and that this is the main reason for their employment in many industries. Of course, this also adds to adult unemployment. If primary education is effectively and compulsorily implemented and child labour withdrawn, will the entire Indian economy collapse? No. The industry will be forced to hire adults to make bangles, produce fireworks, matches, carpets, etc. A positive stand has to be taken, otherwise there will be only a process of continuation and drift.

In 1978 it was stated that in ten years child labour would be abolished. In 1988 this was stated once again. Twenty-five years on, this is still not the case. Social action is required to ensure that primary education takes place on a universal, compulsory basis.

Excerpted with permission from Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India by Leila Seth, Aleph Book Company