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PUCL Bulletin,

May 1998

Child labour: The education challenge

There are hardly any takers in our country - the NHRC being perhaps the only exception - for the view that child labour, one of the most atrocious forms of human rights violations, cannot be eradicated without ensuring compulsory primary education and that no development of any kind, including economic development is possible without implementing the provision of Article 45 of the Constitution which has laid down: "The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of 10 years from the commencement of this constitution for free and compulsory education until they complete the age of 14 years" (that is, upto class VIII). (Note, the first announcement made by the present Human Resource Development Minister, even before the Prime Minister sought the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, that all efforts will be made to provide education to children upto class V)!

Look at the record of even the West Bengal Government, a self-proclaimed most progressive one, which has now been ruled by a CPM-led front for over 20 years. The literacy rate of the Scheduled Castes in West Bengal is 42.21 per cent of the total SC population of the State - - this ranks way behind that of most other states in India. The literacy rate of the Scheduled Tribe are - - 27.78 present of the total ST population in the state - - again, way behind that in most other states in the country. With regard to SC/ST female literacy, the percentage is much lower. West Bengal does not come any where near states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu in respect of over-all literacy and basic education.

We have referred to this dismal picture on a number of occasions pointing out that without imparting basic education to our children, no improvement in any field and the evil of child labour can be tackled. It is all the more regrettable that not many NGOs, "progressive" intellectuals and activists, like the sarvadoyists, radical humanists and other activist-groups do not place compulsory education at the top of their agenda.

One such group in a recent document states, inter alia, that 'resources should be made available to provide free primary education" - - it does not consider "compulsory" education to be a feasible proposition for legal and other reasons! This is the mindset - - a typical middle class mindset - - to which we have referred in the past on a number of occasions.

It is in this context that we refer to the recent report of the Human Development Centre in Karachi, Human Development in South Asia 1998: The Education Challenge (brought out with financial help from UNDP, UNESCO, the World Bank and a number of other international funding agencies). We are doing this with the hope that the Government will take up seriously the task of providing compulsory elementary education and NGOs will place it at the top of their agenda and will not make any effort to dilute the provision of Art 45.


We give below a very brief summary of the salient points specially related to India made in the Human Development report: South Asia has emerged by now as the most illiterate region in this world, and that income poverty is no barrier to the spread of basic education. If Sri Lanka and the Maldives could achieve over 90% adult literacy rate and near-universal elementary school enrolment - - even Bangladesh is making rapid strides in this regard - - why can't India make progress? Political commitment to education in India remains both faint and fragile, with the result that India has the largest illiterate population in the world. Many countries which are poorer than India have a much higher rate of literacy, for example, Tazakistan - - real GDP per capita 1117 dollars, and literacy rate 98 per cent: Kenya - - 1404 dollars, and literacy rate 94 percent; India - - 1348dollars, but literacy rate 52 per cent. India is still first in the world in terms of the number of total. According to official sources, female literacy is 26 percentage points below the male literacy, that is, there are 91 million more adult illiterate females than males in India.

The amount allocated to elementary education in India has fallen from 56% on the First Plan to 29% in the Seventh Plan.

The report states that vulnerable groups in India are often deprived of educational opportunities. The literacy rate varies from 90% for rich urban males to a mere 17% for poor, rural, Scheduled Caste women. SC/STs have a literacy rate of 40 % compared to nearly 60% for higher-caste Hindus. The enrolment rate of 6 to 14-year-old Muslim
77% for non-SC Hindus.

At the outset the Report states the thesis: "Education leads to many social benefits, including improvement in standards of hygiene, reduction in infant and child mortality rates, decline in population growth rates, increase in labour productivity, rise in civic consciousness, greater political empowerment and demoralization, and an improved sense of national unity (emphasis added) … It is quite certain that South Asian economies cannot hope to engineer a decisive breakthrough in development or to become the industrializaiton tigers of the future without a generous investment by basic education and technical skills". (there is one factual error in the report : The Report states that the Government of India has made a constitutional amendment to make "elementary education an inalienable right of all children, that is, fundamental right. It has not yet been formally done.

-- R.M.P 12.4.98


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