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From the Archives: Uncovering the Prevalence of Child Labour in India (1994)

The YUVA Urban Resource Centre houses a report titled “Profile of the Delegates of the National Convention of Child Labourers, December 1994, Madras: An Analysis“. The Convention which the report is about, was organized by Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) and it marked a significant gathering that brought together 1,100 child labourers engaged in 102 different occupations, and belonging to diverse set of  states across India. Serving as representatives for millions of exploited and vulnerable children nationwide, this child-centred event aimed at bringing out perspectives of the children themselves and understanding their situations, feelings, and thoughts about their lives. The National Convention of Child Labourers (NCCL) documentation team included Glen Viagas from INSAF, Goa, Kavitha K. from YUVA, Mumbai, and researchers M. Uday Kumar and R. Vidya Sagar from Madras. 

To comprehensively capture the depth of their experiences, a structured questionnaire was designed. NGOs from 11 states conducted interviews with children in their respective regions, yielding responses from 939 children contributing valuable insights, which were submitted to the CACL Secretariat. The questionnaire covered crucial aspects such as the children’s family background, educational status, reasons for discontinuing school, working conditions, hazards faced at work, and aspirations. The data was also used in CACL’s Alternative Report for Submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the UN Convention on child rights. 

The report also contains 35 compelling case studies of child labourers, hailing from diverse occupations and states. These stories illuminate the harsh realities faced by child labourers, emphasizing the urgent need for sustained efforts towards eradicating child labour entirely. 

One such account features eighteen-year-old Gangaram Sadai, a Mushagar community (Dalit) member from Sunderbirajit village, Madhubani district in Bihar. Coming from an education-deprived background, Gangaram and his family had never attended school. In a village where elementary education was rare, 10 boys and girls, including Gangaram, toiled as coolies, while others migrated to Badoi, Uttar Pradesh, working in carpet looms. Despite the challenges, Gangaram harboured a fervent desire for education, aspiring to acquire knowledge. His family, engaged in agricultural labour, faced discrimination because of being Dalits, receiving meagre compensation for their efforts. Gangaram, enduring the disparity, received 2 kgs of wheat or Rs 8 in cash daily, sitting outside the landlord’s house for his solitary meal. 

Another poignant story unfolds with twelve-year-old Rupali Kamble from Pune, Maharashtra. Rupali, facing  extreme harsh realities of life, used to commence her daily routine at 5 am, scavenging for recyclables. Despite enduring wounds and harassment, she sold collected items to a scrap dealer, earning meagre amounts. Living in a semi-permanent house with her siblings and aunt, Rupali, with a mentally-ill father and an absent mother, dreamt of education. She envisioned a nearby school and playground, associating her hopes with the government, and aspired to become a police officer to combat corruption and injustice. 

These stories vividly depict the harsh realities of child labour, discrimination, and the relentless quest for education endured by countless children in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra during the 1990s. While one might perceive these as tales of the past, suggesting that the situation has evolved over time, the stark statistics reveal a different narrative. 

According to the Satyarthi Children’s Foundation’s Report on Child Labour, an estimated 74.3 lakh children are projected to be engaged in child labour in India by 2025. This indicates a decrease from the 2011 Census figure of approximately 101.3 lakh, but the challenge of complete abolition persists, necessitating sustained efforts. State-level breakdowns reveal that, by 2025, only four states will account for about three-fifths (56%) of the country’s total child labour population. These states include Uttar Pradesh (30%), Bihar (12%), Maharashtra (8%), and Rajasthan (6%), with Uttar Pradesh displaying a consistent upward trend. 

While there has been progress, these statistics underscore the ongoing prevalence of child labour in specific regions. The data emphasizes the urgency of continued initiatives to eradicate child labour entirely, ensuring a safer and brighter future for all children in India. 

The Child Labour Prohibition & Regulation Act, 1986, carries a dual agenda-prohibiting and regulating child labour. However, this conflicting stance may contradict the spirit of Article 24 of the Constitution, which emphasizes the complete abolition of child labour. A significant drawback lies in the Act’s lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs for child labourers. Section 3, aimed at preventing hazardous work and lists out such prohibited occupations and processes, is often exploited due to its exclusion of workshops run by the occupiers with family assistance. Employers pose as family members, enabling them to continue exploiting children. While Article 24 indirectly permits child labour in certain sectors, the Act contradicts the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. It permits minors under fourteen to work in non-hazardous jobs, undermining their right to education. 

The fragmented nature of existing child labour laws, operating independently of broader child rights frameworks, undermines their effectiveness. The Act also falls short of aligning with the ILO’s recommendation of a minimum employment age of fifteen. 

Role of CACL & YUVA   

In this landscape fraught with challenges, organisations like CACL and YUVA emerge as champions of change. The Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) is a coalition of organizations at the national level in India dedicated to combating child labor. Its inception was marked in the year 1992, by the joint endeavor of like-minded organizations in India, including Terre Des Hommes (TDH), Germany, YUVA, and Action for the Rights of the Child (ARC), with the aim of addressing the issue of child labour. It was established initially as a campaign for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC-32) by the Government of India. Evolving from a media campaign to a national network, CACL focuses on eradicating child labour by advocating for policy changes and raising awareness among stakeholders such as child workers, families, policymakers, media, and the judiciary.  

Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), operating at the grassroots level, has made remarkable strides in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Assam, and New Delhi. Through community mobilisation and direct intervention, they rescue children from exploitative work, offering them pathways to education and rehabilitation. Success stories highlight the transformative impact of their initiatives, emphasizing the potential for change when communities unite against child labour. 

As we reflect on the stories of Gangaram and Rupali, the evolution of child labour in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra becomes apparent. While there is progress, the battle is far from over. The legislation, though a step forward, requires reassessment and restructuring to align with the holistic rights of children. Organisations like CACL and YUVA serve as catalysts for change, emphasising the power of collective action.  

The journey towards eradicating child labour is multifaceted, involving legislative reforms, community empowerment, and individual responsibility. The engagement of society, informed by these stories, is crucial to breaking the chains that bind the nation’s youngest souls. It is a call to action, urging us to unite, advocate, and ensure that every child in India has the opportunity to reclaim their childhood and build a brighter future. 

This Report is available at YUVA’s Urban Resource Centre.

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