PUCL Bulletin,

February 1996

Compulsory primary education for tackling the problem of child labour
-By R. M. Pal

This reader maintains, and has written to this effect in the Bulletin and elsewhere, on a number of occasions, that non-implementation of the programme of universal primary education and not putting this social welfare programme first on the list of priorities has rendered India vulnerable in all fields; and child labour can not be eliminated unless the child in sent to his/her rightful place - the school. Today, except Kerala, the picture is grim all over. In UP, for example, one third of the male children and more than three-fifths of female children are illiterate. It is the same in respect of school attendance for India. India is not only behind China, Sri Lanka and South Korea, but also behind 'low-income countries' (as defined by the World Bank) including sub-Saharan Africa.

It is against this background that one has to view the perpetual abuse of children, mostly from the deprived section of our population. Government planners, almost the entire middle class, and regrettably even some highly prestigious human rights and civil liberties organisations maintain that child labour will be abolished only when poverty is eliminated. Which means that this evil will never be eradicated. Some activists depend solely on the good sense and kindness of importers of goods (specially carpets) manufactured by child labour - - they hope to put an end to this menace by asking foreign importers not to buy carpets which involve labour of children. Yet, there are others who maintain that once the provisions of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 have been rigorously implemented, we'll have done our job.

We refuse to recognize the fact that countries like Japan and Great Britain approached their developmental and social welfare programmes in the nineteenth century by first introducing and successfully implementing only one social welfare programme - compulsory primary education. We have not learnt any lesson nor do we want to. It is in this context that Neera Burra's book, Born to Work - Child Labour in India is a significant contribution to the subject.

Ms. Burra tells us a very depressing and sad tale of agony, her statistics are searing to the soul all of which should alarm us - all these based on investigations carried out in a number of industries where children are employed. This perpetual abuse is measured not by numbers (the figure is staggering even according to official statistics - 17.4 million, according to some NGOs the figure is 44 million) but by the intensity of the cry of agony.

What Professor Myron Weiner writes in the Preface to the book is a little puzzling: "What can be done to end child labour in India? Burra does not spell out detailed policy solutions". As we shall see presently, Ms. Burra does give solutions,.

Ms. Burra gives an account of how in spite of a categorical ban imposed by the Factories Act, factory owners use diabolical methods to employ children below the age of fourteen - methods like "artificially partitioning the (factory) area with curtains made of gunny cloth; … in the match industry of Sivakasi (it) is to subcontract some aspects of the production process in order to circumvent the law; … many industries are not registered as factories in order to escape the stringent provisions of law". The author points out a number of loopholes in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 which make it a "completely ineffective instrument. … One clear loophole is that children can continue to work if they are a part of family labour". The author recommends that no distinction be made between hazardous and now hazardous processes in a particular industry. "What is necessary is for whole industries to be listed as banned for child labour which will make the task of enforcement for simpler and strategies of evasion more difficult".

What the author states with regard to the role of education is eradicating one of the most cruel violations of human rights - - which ought to have been, indeed could have been, done within ten years of the promulgation of the constitution of free India, but has been criminally neglected deserves to be noted by men and women of sensitivity.

"It has been the argument in the book", writes Ms. Burra "that the prevalence and persistence of child labour itself reinforces, if not creates, poverty. The circumstances of unemployment - - if not unemployability - combined with their inferior position in the hierarchies of caste and class pre-dispose them to putting their own children to work in turn. And so the downward spiral of exploitation and poverty wends its way. Unfortunately, when one uses the term 'child labour', the solution that comes to mind is to use the traditional tool of labour legislation and 'ban child labour' (expecting that once this is done) child labour will disappear. Child labour as merely a 'labour problem' also means that most of the solutions presented are in the form of asking for equal wages, unionizing children so that they can demand equality from the system.

Historically, however, abolition of child labour was closely linked with the introduction of compulsory primary education. This was the experience of several countries. Children in all societies which have introduced compulsory education have combined schooling with work, but the priority has been education first and work later and not the other way round. (In our country) universal primary education is not given the importance it deserves and instead, many governmental programmes offer palliatives like adult literacy programmes and the establishment of model schools catering largely to the rural elite, rather than tackle --------------- the need for a good basic education". And, this is the only "policy solution". In fact, the book stands out for the remedial measures that have been suggested in the last chapter, "What can be done…" Unlike most activists, Government planners, and voluntary agencies, Ms. Burra has struck a positive note.


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