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Nitin Desai: Children first

Kailash Satyarthi's Nobel Prize is a reminder that we must focus on child labour and education

Nitin Desai 

Nitin Desai

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi is a tribute to a very special set of social activists. They are the ones who believe in Gandhiji’s idea that political action must combine “sangharsh” and “rachna” — agitational politics and constructive work. Many of them are in their early 60s and were influenced in their youth by Jayaprakash Narayan. They have focused attention on problems that are ignored by politicians who cannot look beyond tomorrow’s headlines.

Mr Satyarthi’s non-governmental organisation has campaigned for decades against child labour. But it is a problem on which there is ample scope for confusion. The first source of confusion is in the very definition of the term “child”. The United Nations definitions, to which India is a party, vary. The International Labour Organization’s Convention 138 states that the minimum age for employment “shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years”. But the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “A child means every human being below the age of 18 years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” In India, the age specified in the legislation dealing with the prohibition of child labour is 14 years, which is also the limit specified in the Factories Act and the Apprentices Act. But there are other implicit definitions of the term “child” in the laws dealing with child marriage, juvenile justice and the age of criminal responsibility.

The second source of confusion is the variation in the estimated number of child workers. According to the 2001 Census, 12.7 million children were working in various sectors across the country. This almost certainly excluded unpaid labour. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (2007) suggested the much higher figure of 45.2 million children. According to the National Family Health Survey-III (NFHS-III, 2005-06), nearly one in every eight (11.8 per cent) children aged 5-14 years works either for his/her own household, or for somebody else, and this works out to about 30 million. But it could be argued that all the children between five and 14 years of age who are not in school must be presumed to be working as unpaid help at home, or in the family’s economic activity, or as paid workers elsewhere. On this assumption, roughly 50 million children were at work in 2005-06. Some non-governmental organisations estimate the number of child labourers to be 60 million.

The statistics from the NFHS-III suggest that roughly 80 per cent of the age group 5-14 attended school. The big drop is seen in the 15-17 age group, where school attendance is just 37 per cent in rural areas and 51 per cent in urban areas. One suspects that most of the children shown as employed in paid labour come from this age group. Enforcing an age limit of 17 or 18 years seems quite impractical, and we should focus on those below the age of 14 so that they can complete their education at least to the elementary level. This is necessary both to enforce the child’s right to education and to ensure that the future workforce is literate and numerate to an acceptable level.

The laws to prohibit the employment of children under 14 years are in place. But implementing them is a different story. Precisely because it is illegal, these children work in small enterprises in the unorganised sector, where neither they nor the adult employees have any sort of legal protection. Moreover, more than half the children deemed to be at work in surveys such as the NFHS-III are working in family businesses, or are engaged in household chores. These children are also school dropouts; the reasons given for this in surveys include economic pressures and the perceived irrelevance of the education on offer. The law should be enforced, and organisations, such as Mr Satyarthi’s non-governmental organisation are doing good work there. But the real answer is to improve the quality of education to a point where parents and children see economic value in staying in school.

This focus on the quality of education is easier now that the problem of rising numbers is behind us. The numbers in the 0-6 age range showed an absolute decline between 2001 and 2011, and this will show up as a decline in the school-going age group now. But to get an improvement in quality we have to move away from centralised control of syllabuses and textbooks, and of teacher recruitment and postings in government schools.

Parents want quality education for their children, and expenditure surveys show them spending a substantial proportion of their income for this purpose and a growing move to poorly regulated private schools. Decentralise control over government schools and give parents the right to shape their children’s education. Open the textbook business to competition with only the syllabus being set by some central board. Bring in a system of performance evaluation in terms of writing, comprehension and mathematical skills.

Focusing our efforts just on child labour and education will not be enough. The problem starts from birth. The NFHS data show that more than 50 per cent of mothers received no pre-natal or post-natal care from any health practitioner. Infant mortality has declined, but remains high by international standards even when compared to our neighbours such as Bangladesh. Only 44 per cent of the children in the 12-23-month age group had received the full set of childhood vaccinations. The nutritional status of children below three years shows little improvement between the NFHS-II (1998-99) and the NFHS-III (2005-06): the percentage of stunted children (measured by height for age) has moved from 51 per cent to 45 per cent; of undernourished children (measured by weight for age) from 43 per cent to 40 per cent; and of children with anaemia has gone up from 77 per cent to 79 per cent. This is not for lack of trying. But the anganwadi, which is the front end of the main scheme, the Integrated Child Development Services, reaches only 28 per cent of the target group.

We need a national health policy for children that provides an effective universal health and nutrition safety net from pre-natal support till at least the age of five years. We need an education system run by parents and not by patronage-dispensing politicians. We need to give back our working children their childhood. We need this because a society that fails to nurture its young is destroying its own future.

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First Published: Tue, October 14 2014. 21:50 IST