Child labour in India

Child labour in India
Young boy stacking plates in Bangalore

The problem of child labor exploitation is a major challenge to the progress of developing countries. Children that are very young work at the cost of their right to education which leaves them permanently trapped in the poverty cycle, without the education and literacy required for better-paying jobs. This is particularly serious in India as it tops the list with the highest number of child labourers in the world. The 2001 national Census of India estimated the total number of child labour, aged 5-14, to be at 12.6 million.[1] Out of the 12.6 million ,0.12 million engages in hazardous job. However, according to informal labour force statistics, the problem seems to be more severe than reflected. Child labour is estimated to be as large as 60 million in India, as many children are "hidden workers" working in homes or in the underground economy.[2] In the long run, this phenomenon will evolve to be both a social and a really idiotic economic problem as economic disparities widen between the poor and educationally backward states and that of the faster-growing states. India has the highest number of labourers in the world under 14 years of age.[3] Although the Constitution of India guarantees free and compulsory education to children between the age of 6 to 14 and prohibits employment of children younger than 14 in any hazardous environment, child labour is prevalent in almost all informal sectors of the Indian economy.[4] Companies including Gap,[5] Primark,[6] Monsanto[7] etc. have been criticised for using child labour in either their operations in India or by their suppliers in India.



Child labour, as defined by the International Labour Organization, refers to work that leads to the deprivation of one’s childhood and education opportunities. Effects include a loss of potential and dignity in self, which is harmful to a child’s physical and mental development.


Many Indian families are sending their children to work, with some even living away from home. Reasons behind are often associated with poverty, keeping up with the large-size family subsistence and inadequate public education infrastructure. [8]Families generally are also unable to afford their children’s education.[9]

“Families will have to go without their children's income for several years, a choice many poor parents will be unable to make without help.” -BBC news[10]

As the above quote suggests, poor families are unable to make the right decision for their children’s education as the child’s income plays a role in sustaining the family’s livelihood. Attending school would also mean forgoing a source of income for the family. This is a common sight, especially in the low caste and minorities of India.[11]kid are raped

The demand for child labour further aggravates the situation. Many manufacturing firms and sweatshops are strategically located at poverty-stricken areas to attract children to work as labourers. One example would be the textile factory in Delhi where clothes for the International brand “GAP” were manufactured. With profit maximizing objectives, firms are incentivised to employ children rather than adults due to their cheaper wages, higher efficiency and most importantly, absence of union problems.[12][13]

Bonded Child Labour in India

The worst form of child labours would probably be bonded labour. It refers to children who are “sold” by their parents for a petty sum, a loan or to pay off debts.[14] A form of long run employer-slave relationship is formed when these children are tied to this debt bondage to work for their employers for a time period that could be stretched to a lifetime, and usually it is for a minimal or no wages.[15] There has been no universally accepted number of bonded child labourers in India, but one estimate in 2000 shows that there were 15 million child labourers who were bonded.[16] Bonded child labour is practiced widely across many parts of rural India and across multiple industries.

Though bondage is illegal in India and initiatives have been taken to stop bonded child labours, little has been achieved. Both Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 and Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, have done little to help the bonded child labourers as the employers tend to use the loopholes and ambiguity in the act to their advantage. Also, there was a lack of will from the government to enforce the acts.[17] Despite having large number of bonded labourers identified, very few employers got prosecuted and even fewer got convicted.[18] According to the Ministry of Labour’s figures, between 2000 and 2002 in all of India, there were only around 1800 bonded labourers being indentified and released; and another around 17300 bonded labourers rehabilitated. However, there was no data showing how many children labourers are among those being freed.[18]

Consequences of Child Labour

In general, the overall contribution of child labour in developing countries is so substantial that whether it would harm the economy is still under continuous debate.

The presence of a large number of child labourers is regarded as a serious issue in terms of economic welfare. It is evident from India ranking at lowest quarter (122th) in World HDI (Human Development Index) rankings; in spite of its rapid economic growth. India compares very poorly against countries with high level of human development on all indicators such as life expectancy, education and per capita income. Bonded or not, when children are working, they are put apart from the necessary education.[19] Moreover, large number of low-paid Child labours lowers India’s per capita income. Their hazardous working condition lowers India’s welfare level too.[20]Furthermore, high illiteracy rate puts long-term economic growth at risk.

Some suggest that child labour is necessary to some extent, as child labour takes large proportion of ‘Economically Active’ population in the developing countries. When the state of Andhra Pradesh reduced the number of child labourers by close to 300,000.[1] simultaneously it also saw the sharp decline in the state revenue, which emphasized the importance of child labour to the Indian economy. At the end of the day, short run numerical GDP growth alone cannot determine overall GDP growth, when indicators like literacy level and health care should be taken into consideration too.

To keep an economy prospering, a vital criteria is to have an educated workforce equipped with relevant skills for the needs of the industries. The young labourers today, will be part of India’s human capital tomorrow. Child labour undoubtedly results in a trade-off with human capital accumulation. [21]

Child labour in India are employed with the majority (70%) in agricultural[22] and the rest in low-skilled labour-intensive sectors such as sari weaving or as domestic helpers, which require neither formal education nor training.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are tremendous economic benefits for developing nations by sending children to school instead of work.[10] Without education, children do not gain the necessary skills such as English literacy and technical aptitude that will increase their productivity to enable them to secure higher-skilled jobs in future with higher wages that will lift them out of poverty.

Diamond industry

In 1997, the International Labour Organization published a report titled Child Labour in the Diamond Industry,[23] claiming that child labour is highly prevalent in the Indian diamond industry, as child labourers constitute nearly 3% of the total workforce and the percentage of child labourers is as high as 25% in the diamond industry of Surat. The ICFTU further claimed that child labour was prospering in the diamond industry in Western India, where the majority of the world's diamonds are cut and polished while workers are often paid only a fraction of 1% of the value of the stones they cut.[24] Pravin Nanavati, a Surat-based diamond businessman argued that, since high cost diamonds could easily be lost or broken while cutting or polishing, employing a child labourer would mean risking "lakhs of rupees" and “Around 8-10 years back, some western countries deliberately created the impression that child labour is prevalent in the Indian diamond industry" and called the boycott for monopolising in the sector. The South Gujarat Diamond Workers Association secretary Mohan Dhabuwala, argued that while child labour is highly prevalent in the construction and hotel industries, there are few child labourers in the diamond industry of Surat, less than 1% according to their surveys, mainly because of stern punishments and penalties for violation of child labour laws.[25]

In 1998, Madhura Swaminathan from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research argued that economic growth in Western India was associated with an increase in the number of child workers over the last 15 years and that children work at simple repetitive manual tasks that do not require long years of training or experience in low-paying hazardous works that involves drudgery and forecloses the option of school education for most children.[26]

In 2005, an India-based management consultancy firm named A. F. Ferguson & Co., commissioned a study titled Child Labour from Gem and Jewellery Industry "to spread awareness about child labor among the people connected with the industry" that is conducted at 663 manufacturing units at 21 different locations at Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, as a GJEPC initiative. On February 12, the study is presented in a seminar held by the Gem & Jewelry Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) and the Surat Diamond Association, in Surat, India. The report argued that the use of child labour in India’s diamond processing industry has been reduced from 0.55% 143 in 1998 to 0.31% in 2005 which is estimated to be less than 1%, "while for the synthetic stone industry it is estimated to be two-thirds less". Gem& Jewellery Export Promotion Council chairman Bakul Mehta, claimed that, "Some 500 diamond factory owners took an oath in the city of Palanpur, Gujarat, (home town of leading Gujarati diamond merchants) not to employ children in their factories. Similarly, in Surat, 200 factory owners took the oath," and at GJEPC they, "Remain committed to eradicating child labor from the Indian diamond industry” arguing "...the gem and jewelry industry cannot even think of employing children, not only for moral reasons, but that a child could be injured while polishing or cutting the diamonds." [27][28][29]

Fireworks manufacture

It is estimated that around 135,000 children work in the Indian fireworks industry.

The town of Sivakasi in South India is supposed to be the capital of child labour in fireworks manufacture sector. They mainly start work in April in preparation for the Hindu festival of Diwali. Children work daily with minimal wages, no leave and without any health or safety precautions in factories manufacturing fireworks. [30] An estimated 30 people have died in two separate accidents, and many more cases of death and injuries are not reported. These child workers are usually forced to work after their parents have accepted a cash advance of 1000-5000 rupees (£15-£75).[31]

Silk manufacture

Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 350,000 bonded children are employed by the silk industry in India.[32] As per Human Rights Watch, children as young as five years old are employed and work for up to 12 hours a day and six to seven days a week.[33] Children are forced to dip their hands in scalding water to palpate the cocoons and are often paid less than Rs 10 per day.[34]

Domestic labour

Official estimates for child labour working as domestic labour and in restaurants is more than 2,500,000 while NGOs estimate the figure to be around 20 million.[35] The Government of India expanded the coverage of The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act and banned the employment of children as domestic workers and as workers in restaurants, dhabas, hotels, spas and resorts effective from October 10, 2006.[36]


The misuse of adult labour can be found in the construction industry too. Adults are found in construction of both home and office buildings. In 2011, for the construction of the Asian Games care house, the contractors had employed adults, for they had to be paid more, making it a small issue.

Brick kilns

Each year, thousands of children are rescued from brick kilns, working in awful conditions. Some of the children are actually sold to the brick kiln owners, and are not paid.

Initiatives against child labour

a sign on a construction site in Bangalore banning child labor

In 1979, the Indian government formed the Gurupadswamy Committee to find about child labour and means to tackle it. The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act was not enacted based on the recommendations of the committee in 1986. A National Policy on Child Labour was formulated in 1987 to focus on rehabilitating children working in hazardous occupations.[1] The Ministry of Labour and Employment had implemented around 100 industry-specific National Child Labour Projects to rehabilitate the child workers since 1988.[37]


Initiatives towards Elimination of Child Labour – Action Plan and Present Strategy

The problem of child labour continues to pose a challenge before the nation. Government has been taking various pro-active measures to tackle this problem. However, considering the magnitude and extent of the problem and that it is essentially a socio-economic problem inextricably linked to poverty and illiteracy, it requires concerted efforts from all sections of the society to make a dent in the problem.

Way back in 1979, Government formed the first committee called Gurupadswamy Committee to study the issue of child labour and to suggest measures to tackle it. The Committee examined the problem in detail and made some far-reaching recommendations. It observed that as long as poverty continued, it would be difficult to totally eliminate child labour and hence, any attempt to abolish it through legal recourse would not be a practical proposition. The Committee felt that in the circumstances, the only alternative left was to ban child labour in hazardous areas and to regulate and ameliorate the conditions of work in other areas. It recommended that a multiple policy approach was required in dealing with the problems of working children.

Based on the recommendations of Gurupadaswamy Committee, the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986. The Act prohibits employment of children in certain specified hazardous occupations and processes and regulates the working conditions in others. The list of hazardous occupations and processes is progressively being expanded on the recommendation of Child Labour Technical Advisory Committee constituted under the Act.

In consonance with the above approach, a National Policy on Child Labour was formulated in 1987. The Policy seeks to adopt a gradual & sequential approach with a focus on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations & processes in the first instance. The Action Plan outlined in the Policy for tackling this problem is as follows:

    Legislative Action Plan for strict enforcement of Child Labour Act and other labour laws to ensure that children are not employed in hazardous employments, and that the working conditions of children working in non-hazardous areas are regulated in accordance with the provisions of the Child Labour Act. It also entails further identification of additional occupations and processes, which are detrimental to the health and safety of the children.
   Focusing of General Developmental Programmes for Benefiting Child Labour -         As poverty is the root cause of child labour, the action plan emphasizes the need to cover these children and their families also under various poverty alleviation and employment generation schemes of the Government.
   Project Based Plan of Action envisages starting of projects in areas of high concentration of child labour. Pursuant to this, in 1988, the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) Scheme was launched in 9 districts of high child labour endemicity in the country. The Scheme envisages running of special schools for child labour withdrawn from work. In the special schools, these children are provided formal/non-formal education along with vocational training, a stipend of Rs.100 per month, supplementary nutrition and regular health check ups so as to prepare them to join regular mainstream schools. Under the Scheme, funds are given to the District Collectors for running special schools for child labour. Most of these schools are run by the NGOs in the district.  

Government has accordingly been taking proactive steps to tackle this problem through strict enforcement of legislative provisions along with simultaneous rehabilitative measures. State Governments, which are the appropriate implementing authorities, have been conducting regular inspections and raids to detect cases of violations. Since poverty is the root cause of this problem, and enforcement alone cannot help solve it, Government has been laying a lot of emphasis on the rehabilitation of these children and on improving the economic conditions of their families.

Non-governmental organizations

Many NGOs like CARE India, Child Relief and You, Global march against child labor etc. have been working to eradicate child labour in India.[38] In 2005, Pratham, an Indian NGO was involved in one of the biggest rescue operations when around 500 child labourers were rescued from zari sweatshops in North East Delhi [39] though child labour still goes on today.


  1. ^ a b c "National Child Labour project". Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India. Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  2. ^ "Children In India- The statistics". Friends of Salaam Baalak Trust UK (FoSBT). Retrieved 2011-09-20. 
  3. ^ "India- The big picture". UNICEF. Retrieved 2009-10-19. 
  4. ^ Burra, Neera. "Child labour in rural areas with a special focus on migration, agriculture, mining and brick kilns". National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Retrieved 2009-10-19. 
  5. ^ "Gap Under Fire: Reports Allege Child Labor". ABC News. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  6. ^ Hawkes, Steve (June 17, 2008). "Primark drops firms using child labour". London: The Times. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  7. ^ "Child Labor". Forbes. 2008-10-03. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  8. ^ Morris, Madeleine. "Educating India's child labourers". BBC News. 
  9. ^ "Causes of Child Labour". Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  10. ^ a b Madslien, Jorn (2004-02-04). "ILO: 'Child labour prevents development'". BBC NEWS. Retrieved 2011-09-20. 
  11. ^ "The Hidden Factory: Child Labour in India". The South Asian. Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  12. ^ "The path of innoncence". Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  13. ^ "Indian 'slave' children found making low-cost clothes destined for Gap". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  14. ^ "Bonded Labor in India". 
  15. ^ "Incidence and Pattern". 
  16. ^ "Indian National Statistics". 
  17. ^ "Human Rights and Welfare". 
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  19. ^ "Magnitude of Child Labour in India". 
  20. ^ "India’s Cheap Commodity". 
  21. ^ "Is Child Labor Inefficient?". Harvard. Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  22. ^ "Civil society urges PM to ban child labour". The Times Of India. 2010-06-22. Retrieved 2011-09-20. 
  23. ^ "Child Labour in the Diamond Industry". International Labour Organization. 1997. 
  24. ^ "Child Labour Crisis in Diamond Industry". BBC News. October 26, 1997. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  25. ^ Summit Khanna (2004-12-13). "Diamond industry plays down child labour charges". Ahmedabad: Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  26. ^ Swaminathan, M. (1998). "Economic growth and the persistence of child labor: Evidence from an Indian city". World Development 26 (8): 1513–1528. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(98)00063-1.  edit
  27. ^ Tanna, Ketan (February 14, 2005). "Child Labor Practice Drops in India". Rapaport News. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  28. ^ "Use of child labour in gem industry lower". The Indian Express. February 14, 2005. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  29. ^ Khanna, Summit (February 23, 2005). "AF Ferguson report slams Surat diamond industry". Business Standard. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  30. ^ NDTV. "Child Labour in Fireworks". 
  31. ^ "Slave trade is alive and well in India's fireworks industry". Sunday Herald. Retrieved 2011-09-12. 
  32. ^ Reeves, Phil (24 January 2003). "Scandal of silk industry where child 'slaves' work seven days a week". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  33. ^ "Indian silk industry employs child labour: Human Rights Watch". Rediff. January 23, 2003. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  34. ^ "Child Labour: Blood on silk". Frontline. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  35. ^ "Enforcing the ban". The Hindu. Oct 20, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  36. ^ "A ban that was overdue". The Hindu. Aug 07, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  37. ^ "National Legislation and Policies Against Child Labour in India". International Labour Organization. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  38. ^ "Other Initiatives Against Child Labour in India". International Labour Organization. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  39. ^ "485 child laborers rescued". The Hindu. Nov 22, 2005. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 

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