By Rohin Bhansali, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.

Child labor is widespread and bad for development, both that of the individual child and of the society and economy in which she or he lives. If allowed to persist to the current extent, child labor will prevent the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty and achieving Education for All.

Child labor is one of the biggest problems faced by world today. According to UNICEF, a staggering number of 250 million children aged 2 to 17 are subjected to child labor worldwide. Child labor is defined by many organizations as “any kind of work for children that harms them or exploits them in some way may it be physically, mentally, morally or by depriving a child of education”. Child labor is a social menace in many parts of the world, especially developing countries. There is a widespread practice of child labor in places like agriculture, factories, mining, and quarrying etc.

Magnitude of Child Labour in India

The magnitude of child labour in India has been witnessing enormous decline in the last two decades, both in terms of magnitude and workforce participation rates. Evidence drawn from the National Sample Survey data suggest that India’s child workforce during 2004-05 was estimated at little over nine million (9.07 million) as against twenty-one and half million (21.55 million) in 1983. During this period, the number of child employment has declined sharply by 12.48 million. There is considerable fall in child workforce is observed among boys than girls.

How many children are involved?

It is difficult to cite a current figure for the number of children engaged in child labour. This difficulty is attributed to the fact that the Indian Government “has been negligent in its refusal to collect and analyze current and relevant data regarding the incidence of child labor. As of 1996, official figures continue to be based on 1981 census figures”. The 1981 Indian census reports that there were 13.6 million child labourers in India (Census of India 1981 cited in Weiner 1991, 20). Indian government extrapolations of this 1981 data place the current number of child labourers at between seventeen and twenty.

How necessary is child labour to families in India?

Child labour is a source of income for poor families. A study conducted by the ILO Bureau of Statistics found that “Children’s work was considered essential to maintaining the economic level of households, either in the form of work for wages, of help in household enterprises or of household chores in order to free adult household members for economic activity elsewhere”. In some cases, the study found that a child’s income accounted for between 34 and 37 percent of the total household income. This study concludes that a child labourer’s income is important to the livelihood of a poor family. There is a questionable aspect of this study. It was conducted in the form of a survey, and the responses were given by the parents of the child labourers. Parents would be biased into being compelled to support their decision to send their children to work, by saying that it is essential.

Indian Government Policy on Child Labour

From the time of its independence, India has committed itself to be against child labour. Article 24 of the Indian constitution clearly states that “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment”. Article 39 (e) directs State policy such “that the health and strength of workers and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength”. These two articles show that India has always had the goal of taking care of its children and ensuring the safety of workers. The Bonded Labour System Act of 1976 fulfills the Indian Constitution’s directive of ending forced labour. The Act “frees all bonded laborers, cancels any outstanding debts against them, prohibits the creation of new bondage agreements, and orders the economic rehabilitation of freed bonded laborers by the state”. In regard to child labour, the Indian government implemented the Child Labour Act in 1986. The purpose of this act is to “prohibit the employment of children who have not completed their 14th year in specified hazardous occupations and processes”.

Compulsory Education

The concept of compulsory education, where all school aged children are required to attend school, combats the force of poverty that pulls children out of school. Policies relating to compulsory education not only force children to attend school, but also contribute appropriate funds to the primary education system, instead of higher education.

The Indian state of Kerala distinguishes itself from the rest of India with its educational system. The government of Kerala allocates more funds to education than any other state, with a per capita expenditure of 11.5 rupees compared to the Indian average of 7.8 rupees. It is not only the expenditure of more funds, but where the funds are used that makes the difference. Kerala spends more money on “mass education than colleges and universities”. No correlation exists between expenditure on education and literacy when comparing different countries because some countries, such as India, spend more funds on higher education than primary education. Kerala’s emphasis on primary education has led to a dropout rate of close to 0%, a literacy rate of 94% for males and 86% for females, and a low child work participation rate of 1.9% compared to the Indian average of 7.1% in 1971.


Child labour is a significant problem in India. The prevalence of it is shown by the child work participation rates which are higher in India than in other developing countries. The only possible way to eradicate child labour is education. Going to school opens up new avenues and opportunities with children learning to think, explore, discover, question and acquire knowledge. Besides, it also delays an early marriage. Only if all working children are in school can it lead to equity and justice, further deepening the foundation of our democracy. Creating a social trust and faith in the poor people, to stand by them, and celebrate their victories for having taken the right decision to send their children to schools instead of work. Poor people have the mentality that more children are helpful in creating wealth to the families and hence they send their children to work instead of school.

The act to ban child labour today covers only 15% of the total child labour population in the country. Sectors like commercial agriculture, unregulated factories and immediacies like chronic poverty, that employ close to 80% of the child labour, is not covered by the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986.

The state of education in India also needs to be improved. High illiteracy and dropout rates are reflective of the inadequacy of the educational system. Poverty plays a role in the ineffectiveness of the educational system. The examples of Sri Lanka and Kerala show that compulsory education has worked in those areas. There are differences between Sri Lanka, Kerala and the rest of India. What types of social welfare structures do these places have? What are the attitudes of the people? Is there some other reason why the labour market for child labourers is poor in these areas? These are some questions that need to be answered before applying the concept of compulsory education to India? India is making progress in terms of educational policy.

The government of India has implemented the Child Labour Act in 1986 that outlaws child labour in certain areas and sets the minimum age of employment at fourteen. This Act falls short of making all child labour illegal, and fails to meet the ILO guideline concerning the minimum age of employment set at fifteen years of age. All of the policies that the Indian government has in place are in accordance with the Constitution of India, and all support the eradication of Child Labour. The problem of child labour still remains even though all of these policies are existent. Enforcement is the key aspect that is lacking in the government’s efforts. No enforcement data for child labour laws are available: “A glaring sign of neglect of their duties by officials charged with enforcing child labor laws is the failure to collect, maintain, and disseminate accurate statistics regarding enforcement efforts”. Although the lack of data does not mean enforcement is nonexistent, the number of child labourers and their work participation rates show that enforcement, if existent, is ineffective.