“When my mother died I was very young, and my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry “Weep! Weep! Weep! Weep!”, so your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.”[1]                                                                                                                                                                     -William Blake

Blake, explaining the hardships of a young chimney sweeper reflected on the issue of child labour rampant during the 18th century in England.

Records of child labour as servants in domestic households of noblemen can be traced throughout the human history though it reached its extremes with Industrial Revolution in the late 17th century in England. Peter Thonemann of Wadham College, Oxford, in Children in the Roman Empire, states that slaves and children of lower birth in the Roman Empire started to work as soon as they were physically capable of doing such work.[2] For example, “The tombstone of Quintus Artulus who died at the age of four at the silver mines of Banos de la Encina in Andalusia, depicts the child in a short tunic, barefoot, carrying the tools of his trade, a miner’s axe and basket.”[3], exhibiting the existence of child labour during ancient Roman and Greek civilizations. In the Indian context, child labour has existed in the country since times immemorial as children and their parents used to work together in the farms for it served the purpose of training children for their future.

India saw large-scale exploitation of children with the advent of the British, with kids forced to work in harsh conditions in order to contribute to the earnings of the family. In India, various laws were passed in the pre-independence era, to curb the menace of child labour, such as, The Indian Factories Act, 1881, The Children Act, 1933 and The Employment of Children Act, 1938. The Indian Factories Act, 1881 was the first attempt towards the upliftment of children involved in child labour by regulating working hours and conditions though it did not put an end to the employment of children. The Employment of Children Act, 1938, prohibiting the employment of children in hazardous occupations such as railways was a sincere attempt of the legislature to put an end to the employment of children in the country though it failed to address poverty, the root cause of child labour.

Every child deserves a happy and joyful childhood, needs a safe and encouraging environment under the protection and guidance of their parents or guardians so that they get equal opportunities to flourish, thus ensuring a bright future of the child and the country. The future of our country depends on the present scenario of education system so that today’s children become tomorrow’s ideal citizens of the country. Children should get a childhood free from exploitation and abuse so that they do not lose their innocence at a very tender age. Based on our observations in the society, a child exposed to hardships at an early age ends up choosing the wrong path of crime to eradicate poverty from their lives.

Definition of a ‘child’

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”[4]

  -Nelson Mandela

Under The Child Labour Act, 1986, a child is defined as “a person who has not completed his fourteen years of age”[5]. Normatively, child is defined as a fundamentally undeveloped person in process of developing, thus needing a guardian to act on his behalf.[6] International Labour Organization defines child labour as a work that deprives children of their childhood and innocence, harming their physical and mental development and is detrimental to their potential and dignity.[7] Children working in hazardous conditions in cracker, glass and carpet industry for long hours mar their health. Deprivation of education and proper health divests these children of a proper childhood. Child labour takes its worst form in illicit activities like prostitution, slave trade and drug trafficking where children are considered a commodity by their masters.

According to the 2001 census, an estimated 12.6 million children are engaged in hazardous occupations in India[8], thus getting exposed to exploitation and abuse early in their lives. India, home to largest number of child labourers in the world, contributes to 25% of child labour in the world. As per the response given by the census department to an RTI filed by CRY, the database of 2011 census on child labour has not been updated by the Delhi government.[9]

As a part of government’s zero-tolerance towards child labour, employing children below fourteen years has now been made a punishable offence. The Child Labour Act, 1986 has now been amended and renamed as Child & Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act, thus addressing a major loophole of The Child Labour Act. Before the amendment, the act banned the employment of children below 14 years in hazardous occupations and processes. Under The Child & Adolescent Labour Act, the offences have been made cognizable and the punishment increased.[10] Also, the age of prohibition of child labour would be linked to the age under Right to Free and Compulsory Education.

Forms of Child Labour

There are various forms of child labour, like the bonded child labour, which is the worst type of labour. Working mostly as domestic servants in India, they are young girls who work for long hours without any proper food and rest and suffer physical, mental and sexual exploitation at the hands of their masters. Agricultural sector employs maximum number of child labourers, accounting for 70% of child labour worldwide.[11] According to a Southern Illinois University report, 85% of child labour in India is engaged in traditional agricultural activities.[12]There have been shocking revelations of children being sold to rich moneylenders in the Indian villages to clear debt.[13] According to the annual report of the Department of Labour, a majority of child labour is involved in agriculture in applying harmful pesticides in the fields.[14]Rag picking, a most degrading form of labour, is prevalent among children of lower castes, e.g. Dalits, who face discrimination in society in various walks of life. Children are also forced to enter into a world of war at an early age in states like Chhattisgarh due to extreme poverty where they are recruited to serve as soldiers by armed opposition groups. Children employed at glass factories, working under extreme conditions are exposed to chemicals and open furnaces spewing toxic gases.[15] Firozabad, City of Bangle, is infamous for the ‘Child Labour Market’ where children can be hired defying anti-child labour laws,[16] Children employed in Matchbox factories, Beedi-making, power looms and cracker industry work for long hours with heavy machinery and sharp tools, exposing themselves to toxic elements like lead, arsenic and mercury.


Inspite of the legal measures implemented by the Indian government, the situation of child labour continues to be in shambles throughout, more so in the northern part of India where it is seen as a necessity to sustain the family’s income. The working conditions of these child labourers are hazardous and working hours long, meals are frugal and the employers of these children  pay awfully low wages.

The long-term impact of child labour can be devastating for both the child and the country. The unfortunate child not only misses out on his childhood and education but also suffers serious health problems in the future. The illiteracy of the child ensures that he has no option other than continuing as a labourer and grows up to become a low-wage earning adult labourer, as a result of which his children would also be pushed into this vicious circle, ensuring that poverty and child labour is passed on from generation to generation.


[1] William Blake, The Chimney Sweeper: When my mother died I was very young, available at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172910

[2] Peter Thonemann, Children in the Roman Empire, The Times Literary Supplement, (Oct. 12, 2011), http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article796886.ece.

[3] id.

[4] Nelson Mandela, Speech by President Nelson Mandela at the launch of the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund, available at http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS250&txtstr=Mahlam


[5] THE CHILD LABOUR (Prohibition and Regulation) ACT, 1986 at 107, http://www.childlineindia.org.in /pdf/Child-labour-Act-1986.pdf.

[6] Debra Satz, Child Labour: A Normative Perspective, 17 THE WORLD BANK ECON. REV. 297, 298 (2003), available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3990140?origin=JSTOR-pdf.

[7] What is child labour, International Labour Organisation, http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang–en/index.htm.

[8] State-wise Distribution of Working Children according to 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001 Census in the age group 5-14 years, http://labour.nic.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/Divisions/childlabour/Census1971to 2001.pdf.

[9] Prerna Sodhi & Divya Sharma, No updated database on child labour, The Times of India, Delhi, June 13, 2012, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-06-13/delhi/32214611_1_child-labour-child-rights-rti-application.

[10] Govt nod to total ban on child labour, The Indian Express, New Delhi, Aug. 29, 2012, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/govt-nod-to-total-ban-on-child-labour/994513/.

[11] Teresa Buerkle, Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of child labour worldwide, FAONewsroom, Rome, Sep. 14, 2006, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000394/.

[12] Sharmistha Self & Richard Grabowski, Agricultural Technology and Child Labor: Evidence from India, Southern Illinois University, (Jan. 1, 2007), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1054 &context=econ_dp.

[13] Laasya Priya Ponnada, PROGRESSIVE ABOLITION OF CHILD LABOUR, Legal India, http://www.legalindia.in/progressive-abolition-of-child-labour.

[14] Child labour continues to be rampant in India: Report, The Indian Express, Agencies: Washington, Dec. 16, 2010, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/child-labour-continues-to-be-rampant-in-india-report/725520/.

[15] Child labour rampant in Firozabad’s famous bangle industry, oneindianews, Firozabad (UP), June 28, 2009, http://news.oneindia.in/2009/06/28/childlabour-rampant-in-firozabads-famous-bangleindustry.html.

[16] id.

By Mayank Samuel, NALSAR, Hyderabad.