Millions of kids in danger: Why India struggles with a massive child labour problem

There is no official data (publicly available) to establish the magnitude of the deaths of child labourers.
Millions of kids in danger: Why India struggles with a massive child labour problem
Millions of kids in danger: Why India struggles with a massive child labour problem
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Surgical bandages, bruises, and dried blood spots on Chotu's body – found abandoned in a not-so-desolate lane of Shaikpet area of Hyderabad (Telangana) – indicated recent hospitalization and had all the signs of a suspicious death.

“One boy dead-body aged about 12 years,” read the description in First Information Report (FIR) about Chotu registered at the Golconda police station of Hyderabad. “Surgical band-aids are found on his boy dead body.” A case of suspicious death – under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code – was registered and a speedy investigation initiated.

The only clue to the boy’s identity was the code on the surgical bandage on Chotu’s body – it was sent to various hospitals in the city for further information. Upon tracking the hospital where Chotu was treated, police found that most details in the inpatient form were either untrue or misleading.

"The child's name, age, and his address turned out to be made-up. Only the phone number in the ‘local guardian’ column was correct, but the name against it was fake,” said sub-inspector Madhava Rao, the investigating officer. “The person who took the child to the hospital was the owner of a bangle-making factory in Falaknuma and Chotu worked there," he added.

Chotu’s body was handed over to the factory owner only to be found in an abandoned state about 15 km away from the hospital.

Chotu was a victim of child trafficking from Bihar, and was forced to toil for over 14 hours a day at the factory. He had died of tuberculosis, which aggravated due to the gross neglect, poor nutrition and hazardous environment at the factory.

During investigation, the police got a tip-off that there were three more child labourers trapped in the same factory. A raid was coordinated and the kids – aged seven, nine and 11 – were rescued from the same factory. The children were first kept at a local home and eventually sent to their home state of Bihar.

According to the team which raided the factory, the premises posed serious health hazards – even for adults.

"There was hardly any ventilation and the place had no hygiene. Children spent 14-15 hours a day there; they even ate their meals inside,” said Syed Fayaz, station house officer of the Golconda police station, describing the site where Chotu worked.

"This raid was a revelation of sorts for us about the extent of abuse and vulnerabilities the children are exposed to,” the SHO added.

Despite all efforts made to arrest the owner of the factory since March this year, when the incident came to light, he is still “absconding.”

“We found out that the owner shifted base and has left the city for good. But, we are still trying to track him down,” said Madhava Rao, the investigating officer.

How the crisis is tackled

There are many departments and organisations devoted to rescuing child labourers. To begin with, the labour department conducts raids and rescues routinely. Then there are the Childline centres – 24x7, 365-days-a-year helpline centres across the country – where people can report suspected cases. Several NGOs also get tip-offs and work with various departments to rescue child labourers.

About a month before Chotu died, the department conducted “Operation Smile” – an extensive drive to track down and rescue child labourers, and take offenders to task. This was the third consecutive year of the drive, and about 200 children were rescued from the bangle-making units of Hyderabad alone.

During 2016-17, a drive under the various departments of Telangana - Telangana Police department, Women and Child, Labour, Revenue, Juvenile Welfare department among others- “Operation Smile” and “Operation Muskaan” led to the rescue of 880 children.”

But Chotu could not be saved.

Is Chotu an exception?

Six months before Chotu died, in September 2016, a 11-year-old boy had died due to ill-health at one of the bangle making factories in the city. Four children, all of whom hailed from Bihar, were rescued from that site by officials of the Bhavani Nagar police station and the factory’s owner was charged.

These are two cases that have come to light recently, where children working in similar environments succumbed to illnesses. However, nobody working in the area of child protection is certain that this won’t happen again.

In 2015, seven children below 14 years of age and 10 children aged 14-18 years died in factory/machine accidents, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Nine children below 14 years of age and 11 children aged 14-18 years died in "Mines or Quarry disaster", the NCRB data showed. There is no information on whether the children were merely present at these sites at the time of the ‘disaster’ or if they were working there, but a few recent news investigations (such as here) into mining-related deaths in the country suggested at least four “mica-related deaths” in July 2016.

10 million kids in danger

India has at least 10 million child labourers, many of them exposed to violence and abuse. As per Census 2001, 12.67 million children in the age-group 5-14 were listed as workers, both main and marginal. If the same categories are taken into account, the number of child labourers in India as per Census 2011 arrives at 10.1 million and not 4.35 million as it is popularly quoted.

There is no official data (publicly available) to establish the magnitude of the deaths of child labourers. However, illnesses are not all that the children have to endure.

In 2015, of 8,800 cases registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), the perpetrators were employers or co-workers in 25% cases (2,227), according to the NCRB database.

Let it sink in that despite numerous preventive and curative efforts by government, there are children out there who are exposed to death, hazardous work environments, risk to mental and physical health, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and illiteracy among several other vulnerabilities.

The number of children exposed to such risks is immense. According to Census 2011 records and various studies based on it, India has over 10.1 million child labourers in the 5-14 year age-group – most of these are forced. For perspective, Delhi’s population in 2011 was 11 million.

The enormity of India’s child labour problem

Between 2001 and 2011, India witnessed a reduction in child labour by 2.6 million, according to studies based on Census 2011. However, NGOs and activists have maintained that Census data might not reflect the magnitude of child labour because of the nature of its data collection: door-to-door household survey.

While the overall figure of child labour is alarming, the number of children employed in some form of hazardous work is no less either. Although India doesn’t top the list in terms of incidence rate, India has 2.4 million children aged 15-17 years – highest globally – employed in hazardous environments, according to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) World Report on Child Labour, 2015.

What the books have to say about child labour

After the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 was passed in August (2016), the Ministry of Labour and Employment conducted extensive consultations with various stakeholders to frame the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Central Rules released in June this year.

A list of Hazardous Occupations and Processes has been updated by the ministry this year which includes mines and collieries, beedi-making units, brick-kilns, carpet manufacturing, factories producing inflammable substances and explosives, cotton-fields, cotton-seed industries, units making garment embellishments (like zari borders), footwear manufacturing and matchbox units.

Across the world, accepted definitions of child labour have been based on conventions adopted by the ILO, a UN agency working since 1919, among other things, for “abolishing extreme forms of child labour.”

As per ILO, child labour is loosely defined as work “that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling: by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school."

To ensure minimum schooling and to counter the worst forms of child labour, the ILO adopted two conventions: The Minimum Age Convention (Convention 138) in 1973 and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (Convention 182) in 1999. These conventions were eventually ratified by member countries. India ratified these two conventions finally this year.

Despite the amended definitions and ratification of ILO conventions to further protect children, the mere existence of law cannot work magic.

The hurdles: Clandestine operations, lack of awareness and sensitivity

Many innocent children lose their childhoods and are forced into work due to “lack of coordination and inter-departmental convergence”,“gaps” or “lapses in law enforcement".

From existence of large number of illegal factories or units to lack of awareness and sensitisation in the public, from leaking of information about rescue operations to delay in acting on tip-offs and forged-age certificates, the stakeholders of child protection speak about several problems that plague the rescue operations.

For instance, in Hyderabad, it has been found that bangle-making and garment embellishment units operate clandestinely out of a single room in residential complexes.

“We cannot say how many such illegal units exist,” a senior official who is part of Operation Smile and Operation Muskaan for three years now told me. “We solely work on tip-offs and suspicious activities noticed during our field visits. It is almost impossible for any department to track all these small-scale industries because there are scores of them which operate from within residential complexes of the city.”

“One can’t just barge into such buildings without enough evidence. And these lapses do mar rescue,” the official added.

A thorough survey to establish the number of such illegal factories should have been done and these units should be forced to register in some form with the government for transparency, the official said. However, he added, “debilitating poverty will make anyone be lenient to such setups, which still sadly are a major source of income for large sections of the population.”

It is an accepted reality that licensed merchants have several unlicensed suppliers and since the profit margins reduce, the search for cheaper labour increases. And preparation of a comprehensive list of such illegal setups can’t be taken up by any one department alone.

“It would indeed be very useful to have a mapping of the hazardous industries or units in the city at our disposal to keep an eye on the vulnerable localities,” said E Gangadhar, Joint Commissioner of Labour for Hyderabad and Secunderabad, Telangana.

Gangadhar, who was Project Director with the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) at the district-level in pre-bifurcation Andhra Pradesh, has been closely associated with rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation of child labourers for over a decade now.

“Apart from the lack of information about illegal units, lack of awareness and sensitivity in the public and resistance from the community during rescues has been a major challenge,” Gangadhar told me. “The situation has improved due to support from the police department now. There is a certain level of insensitivity in officials too, primarily due to lack of awareness, and that too is being tackled by conducting workshops,” he added. 

Domestic work notorious for abuse, violence

Domestic labour is yet to be tackled comprehensively, but the trafficking and forced migration has seen a positive change over the years, Imtiyaz Raheem, child protection officer for the Hyderabad district, told me.

Talking about lack of sensitivity in the public, Gangadhar said: “Take for instance the problem of domestic child labour. Irrespective of the number of campaigns taken up, the number of tip-offs are low.”

“Very often, we observe that people only report such violations of law when they have enmity with their neighbours,” Gangadhar rued.

Case-studies from the field visit corroborate this.

Chinni, who hails from Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, was nine when a distant relative brought her to Hyderabad promising decent education and part-time work. She was sent to live with a couple who worked as doctors to take care of household work, and to look after their 14-year-old son.

“I was taken there to do household work and take care of someone so much older than me. The child used to beat me. The lady of the house used to beat me almost every other day,” Chinni recalled. “Every feud the family had would end with me getting a beating. They didn’t even give me proper food after all this. I was never allowed to leave the house and I had long forgotten what school looks like,” Chinni told me.

A neighbour alerted the authorities, supposedly due to issues with the couple, and Chinni was rescued.

Chinni now lives and studies in Class 6 at a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya – residential schools for girls run by government – and hopes to be a teacher someday.

“I met my parents after three years. They (employers) didn’t pay us anything and tried to lie at the Child Welfare Committee meeting – they said I was lying and that my mother was mentally ill,” Chinni told me. “However, I was told to to be fearless and I narrated the ordeal. Now, I study here and visit my family during festivals,” she said.

Almost every other child rescued from domestic work has a similar story rooted in poverty.

“It becomes tough to completely prohibit such forced work by children because of two reasons: They largely remain invisible, and the survival of families might be dependent on the meagre one-time settlements or annual payments,” child protection officer Raheem said, adding, “Till some sort of redressal is provided for the poverty, it will not be possible to make parents interested in protection and education of their children.”

“In intervention programmes taken up at the railways, it is observed that the age of the children has slightly gone up. Earlier a large majority of the children were nine- or 10-year-olds. Now, the age has gone up to 12. Somewhere, interventions have worked at both the source and receiving end of child-labour,” Raheem added.

Post-rescue hurdles: Reintegration, healthcare, education

Even when rescues are successfully completed, the reintegration of the children into the society, the prosecution and conviction of the offenders, and the long-term plans for the future of the rescued and reintegrated children seem like a long battle.

From difficulties in handling the immediate health emergencies to temporary accommodation and speedy rehabilitation or repatriation, the post-rescue phase has several challenges and is often more critical.

The issues of temporary accommodation – or homes to lodge rescued children temporarily – is finally grabbing the attention of some state governments. For instance, in a one-of its kind effort, the Telangana government recently sanctioned one residential home-cum-school for each of its 31 districts for rescued children.

“Accommodation of rescued children was a long-pending problem, but finally it has been solved. This is a very large-scale project and this will help fulfill the needs of the state,” Gangadhar, the joint commissioner of labour, said. “Apart from this, there are existing NGO homes.”

Shashikant Gurav, the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana coordinator of Pratham, interacting with families of child labourers during his follow-up visit in Bihar. File photo from the NGO.

In interviews with field-workers from various NGOs working in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, almost everyone stressed on the importance of improved access to healthcare and better education facilities.

A warden of a rescue home in Hyderabad, who’s been working there for 15 years now, pointed out that when the children reach the home, they are under severe trauma and some have illnesses.

“A girl came to us with a history of alcohol abuse and she was prompting her mother to bring local liquor for her,” the warden told me. “In such cases, if there are frequent visits by doctors and not just the initial one, it would help in providing all round care for the children.”

The Pratham Council for Vulnerable Children has been working with “the most vulnerable, unreached children” for more than 16 years now.  Currently, Pratham works in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

After repatriation of 16 children rescued from the factories of Hyderabad, Mumbai and Jaipur to their home state of Bihar, Pratham did a follow-up on the current status of their education.

Shashikant Gurav, the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana coordinator of Pratham, visited Bihar along with his colleagues from Mumbai and Jaipur to follow-up on rescued child labourers.

“The children were from Gaya district of Bihar. It was a pahadi (mountainous) village and reaching there itself was an effort,” he said.

In Gaya, they followed-up on 152 children altogether and found that 102 were in village, and only 50 were in schools. Rest were out of village and out-of-school already within months of repatriation. Gurav and his colleagues did follow-up in Sitamarhi district of Bihar too. Out of 16 children repatriated from Hyderabad, five were in school and 11 were out-of-school.

“Although the children had been enrolled in the school, they were ‘out-of-school’ within a couple of months of repatriation,” Gurav said, adding, “It was found they were from shepherd families and got engaged in the family work after repatriation.”

There is no clarity as to who helps the rescued and repatriated children get enrolled in school and it is largely ad hoc.

“There should be proper documentation sent along with children who are repatriated. At times, children don’t have proper documents stating that they were rescued child labourers. This needs to be fixed because the access to welfare schemes depends on that certificate,” he pointed out.

“There is so much effort on rescue, and prohibition, similar effort should be put post-rescue. If we don’t work at the poverty alleviation and improvement of education facilities at the root of the problem, no amount of awareness and rescues are going to change current the situation,” Gurav added.

Sources pointed out that though there are standard post-rescue mechanisms, the implementation part is yet to be improved.

“Post rescue, there should be speedy repatriation; even Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 mandates the same,” said Kishor Bhamre, director of Pratham. “Once rescued from restricted environments, children should be able to enjoy freedom so that it helps them to realise why it is important to go back to school and focus on the education. Although there are practical difficulties, repatriation should be improved,” Bhamre explained.

“Work also needs to be done on inter-department coordination and improved interstate coordination for speedy action on tip-offs and effective repatriation,” he added.

Criminal prosecutions rarely pursued

"While the Child Labor Act increases the penalties for employing children in prohibited child labor, these penalties are likely to be insufficient to deter violations," according to as 2016 report titled Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released by the Bureau Of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), under the a department of United States Department of Labor initiative.

Trivial proofs such as age certificates issued by medical professionals without proper tests such as ossification method (bone-age assessment) should never be accepted by the judiciary, and awareness should be created on a large scale about the need for stringent punishment and not just petty fines, senior officials pointed out.

“Criminal prosecution or civil action against offending employers is rarely pursued, ensuring impunity for employers of child laborers,” a Harvard investigation titled ‘Is this protection’ noted. In this report, a government official stated, "From court, culprits always get bail. In the last 14 years, no one employer or mediator has been sent to jail. And it is shameful for the administration. This is the fault of [the] system. The law is efficiently strong. But it [is] not implemented properly … And unless these culprits are prosecuted, in my view, we [will] not [be] successful and child labor cannot be abolished.”

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel

In September 2017, the Union Home Ministry launched PENCIL – a platform for effective enforcement for no child labour. PENCIL has a nationwide tracking system, a provision for convergence between departments and states and a corner where anyone can register a complaint. Each district will have a nodal officer to track complaints and update the status within 48 hours. 

The NCLP too has seen revamps to align itself with the latest amendments. Surveys to get an updated idea of the issue have reportedly been initiated and are at various stages of completion across the country.

"Srikakulam has the longest coast-line and several hazardous occupations in which children are employed,” NCLP Srikakulam Project Director Trinath Rao said. “Right now, we don’t have much data on the social dynamics. A detailed survey is being taken up to identify that and the magnitude of the child labour. We will then figure where the seasonal schools and special schools are to be improved and new ones added," he added.

“Telangana has a state resource centre now and the labour department is the nodal department for the same. We have an action plan formulated for elimination of child labour. The plan brings labour, women and child welfare department, health, police, civil societies and the education department among others under a common roof to improve inter-department coordination,” Varsha Bhargavi, state coordinator of the resource centre said.

Back in Chinni’s hostel, most kids were rescued either from the street or some form of child labour. They were aware that they were lucky to be here. Most other Chinnis often lose their childhoods in agony--or end up as an unidentified body, like Chotu.

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