The winning of the Nobel peace prize by Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent a lifetime campaigning against child labour, has refocused attention on this scourge. A series of reports in this newspaper has painted a graphic picture of the reality on the ground. A lot has been done and some progress made but a lot more remains undone. Success and failure are most graphically illustrated by the contrast between two geographies – Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. The fire cracker and matchbox making cluster in the former is inching towards zero child labour, whereas in the bidi manufacturing industry in the latter, child labour has merely been outsourced. Overall, the extent of child labour is directly proportional to the degree to which work can be outsourced to contractors who get it done in and around homes. International pressure on garment brands that import a lot from poor countries has ensured that factories making garments no longer directly employed child labour; but outsourced activities like finishing (snipping off thread ends), which contractors get done by people working out of home, continue to use children, since it is not illegal for parents to have their children help out in micro-enterprises.
Officially, there are still 4.5 million children at work, but the reality is a lot worse. Officialdom in Chhattisgarh, for example, says there is not a single child worker in the state! Several things have to be done simultaneously to totally root out the evil. As bonded labour (children held captive in work places far away from home, taken there by dishonest touts) is the worst form of the disease, preventive action must continue to take place in clusters (be it carpet weaving or zari work) where children are known to work long hours.
As the biggest gain is children who continue to work now mostly get a bit of schooling, the strategy ahead must be twofold – incentivise parents to send children to school and make schooling enjoyable enough for children to want to go to school. The midday meal has been a great help, but it is worth considering if parents can be paid a bit to forego the income that a child could have earned had she not gone to school. The parents of 4.5 million children could be paid Rs 50 a month for 10 years and it would cost little compared to that spent on many fancy projects. But this itself is not enough. Children often don’t like to go to school as they can’t follow what is being taught. A teacher teaching a class of 10-year-olds proceeds assuming everyone can read a bit but many do not. This has been revealed by recent surveys by Pratham. So initial school education has to be overhauled keeping in mind that the same class will have children with widely varying capabilities. The return for the money and effort expended will be a nation with foundations for acquiring sharply higher skills than is the case today.