The Working and the Street Children: Where Is the Child?


Article 32 (Child labour): The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education…………………………. Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.

5.1 The Extent of the Problem

Children have worked in the past in most societies, but it was taken for granted and was not considered unusual or inappropriate. In the previous centuries, the concept of childhood was not given any importance because preparation of an individual child belonging to disadvantaged groups, for future responsibilities, in term of education was not as complex as it is today. Also, societies were so sharply divided on the basis of socio-economic criteria that child labour was not viewed in askance and was virtually compartmentalised and sanctified. Only children of upper castes were to be protected, while children from lower castes as well as the girl child were considered to be ‘born to work’. The concept of child labour and that this should not happen, is relatively new. The concern for child labour and the social realisation of unfairness towards these children is a sign of a more aware and empathetic society. Against the backdrop of modern scientific knowledge, especially in relation to providing conducive contexts for child development, child labour appears totally dysfunctional in any society.

When we look into a child’s eyes, we expect to see hope, trust and innocence but when these signs of childhood are replaced by betrayal, hunger, fear and suspicion, we need to take stock of ourselves and the society we have created (Biswas 2007). The phenomenal presence of child labour makes one wonder where has the childhood of these children gone. Truly, this is childhood lost. It is believed that India is a home to the highest number of child labourers in the world. The Census (2001) report clearly points to the increase in the number of child labourers in the country from 11.28 million in 1991 to 12.59 million in 2001. The total number of working children in the country has declined from 12.6 million as per the Census 2001 to 4.35 million as per Census 2011 which shows 65 % reduction.

According to Census 2011, the number of child labourers is 43.5 lakh in the age group 5–14 years of which 32.7 lakh are in rural areas and 10.8 lakh are in urban areas. As per UNICEF State of World’s Children (2013), 12 % of India’s children aged 5–14 years are child workers.

Nobody knows the exact figures. But it is known to all, they are in millions. They work everywhere—in sweatshops, in factories, in dhabas, in mines, on construction sites, in affluent households, in agricultural fields, in brothels and so on. They are estimated to be more than 100 million. A UN report claimed they are 145 million. Statistics on child labour are elusive not only because of the practical difficulties involved in the design and implementation of child survey but also because of differences in perception about what constitutes a child, or child work, or child labour (Rehman et al. 2002). The variations in estimates are due to differing notions and conceptions about working children. The conceptual and definitional differences have led to the application of different methods of estimations and surveys (Dingwaney 1988). Another serious problem which is encountered in identifying the child workers is that almost all the child workers work in unorganised non-formal sector on which there is hardly any reliable source of data. The pattern of employment also differs considerably in terms of wage, duration of work and methods of operations.

The existence of child labour, in whatever magnitude, should be a matter of concern for the working children themselves, the parents, society and the state. Whether part-time or full time, in any occupation, engagement of a child in the labour force simply means a complete or partial denial of childhood to him. He is not merely deprived of the joys and carefree life of a child but also of desirable physical and mental development. This is not only injustice to him as a child but also as an adult throughout his life. For the foundation of adulthood is built on extremely weak structure of underdevelopment (Dingwaney 1988).

The census 2011 is putting the extent of child labour to 4.35 million which shows 65 % reduction compared to census 2001 where the number was pegged at 12.6 million. According to Census (2011), the number of child labour in UP was 89630, Maharashtra 496916, AP 404851, Bihar 451590 and Rajasthan 252338.

If government claims are to be believed, then what could be the reasons for declining numbers of working children? It is not easy to reduce child labour. The government claims that its multipronged approach to alleviate poverty, universalise education along with social protection, employment generation and rescue and rehabilitation has done the work. While the government seemed content with the role, civil society activists have come down heavily on the government for not doing enough to eliminate child labour. Organisations like Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) has pointed out that the samples taken for survey are very small for a country like India. Also, the assumption of the government is that children who are enrolled in school would not be part of the work force. BBA has rescued around 1,100 children from bonded labour in the past year. The rescue comes from raids conducted with help from the police and the judiciary. Of these 1,100, as per BBA, more than 800 were enrolled in schools in their respective villages. On paper they are already in schools whereas the reality is that they are bonded labour.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment bill 2012 is in the parliament for approval. As per this bill, child labour will be completely prohibited for all children till the age of 14 years. This will link up to the Right to Compulsory and free primary education for children till 14 years. The act will also prohibit adolescence (14–18 years) from work in mines, inflammable substances and in hazardous occupations (http://​www.​livemint.​com/​Politics/​FDhOcEsEiKHX572B​n7kuZJ/​Number-of-child-labourers-in-country-has-declined-Govt.​html?​utm_​source=​copy).

Latest information, calculated on the basis of the worker–population ratio (WPR) based on the NSSO’s revelation in its latest report, “Employment and Unemployment Situation in India, 2011–12”, released in January 2014 reveals that the states which have highest number of child workers (both in urban and rural areas) are—Uttar Pradesh (28.83 lakh), Bihar (11.22 lakh), West Bengal (10.47 lakh), Jharkhand (4.75 lakh) and Andhra Pradesh (4.5 lakh). It is significant to note that the states which are good performers in overall social indicators have very few child workers. Thus, if calculations based on NSSO figures are to be taken into account, Himachal Pradesh has the lowest number of child workers, just about 4,500, followed by Kerala, about 16,000. A high proportion of child labourers implies failure of the state government’s efforts to ensure universal primary education, on one hand, and the inability to implement government policies to overcome poverty and underemployment.


5.2 Defining Child Labour

There is no universally accepted definition of child labour. Various agencies have defined child labour in terms of work type and age criterion. According to ILO (1983), “Child Labour includes children permanently leading adult lives, working long hours for low wages under conditions damaging to their health and to their mental and physical development, sometimes separated from their families, frequently deprived of meaningful educational and training opportunities that could open for them a better future”. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences defines child labour as “When the business of wage earning or of participation in self or family support conflicts directly or indirectly with the business of growth and education, the result is child labour”. While according to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) act (1986), a ‘child’ is a person who has not completed the age of 14 years.

Child labour can be defined as those children who participate in work either paid or not paid. Child labour could mean employment of children in occupations which is detrimental to their health and also deprive them from getting chances to grow, bereft of developmental opportunities and denied opportunities to acquire skills. A recent report on child labour used the term child labour to cover all economic activities carried out by persons less than 15 years of age, regardless of their occupational status (wage earners, own account worker, unpaid family worker), but not household work performed by them in their parents house, except where such work can be assimilated to an economic activity, e.g. Staying at home while parents go to work, therefore deprived them from going to school.

In the context of exploitation, UNICEF has given a very comprehensive formulation in its attempt at defining child labour:


Starting FullTime Work at too Early an Age: This happened historically in the earlier stage of industrialisation in Europe where children begin to work in factories from 9, 8 or even 5 years. This is still the case today in many developing countries.



Working too Long: Within or outside of the family so that children are unable to attend school, where it is available, or to make the most of school due to fatigue or lack of time. In some cases, children still work 12–16 h a day.



Work resulting in excessive physical, social and psychological strains upon the child as in the cases of sexual exploitation in prostitution and pornography, work in sweatshops, as well as such dangerous work as military service and mining.



Work and life on the streets in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.



Inadequate remuneration for working outside of the family.



Too much responsibilities too early as in the domestic situations where children under 10 may have to look after young brother and sisters for a whole day thereby preventing school attendance.



Work that does not facilitate the psychological and social development of the child as in dull and repetitive tasks associated with industries like handicrafts.



Work that inhibits the child’s selfesteem as in bonded labour and prostitution, and in a less extreme case the negative perception of ‘street children’.


On one side of the development debate are those who believe that child labour must be defined broadly to include all children who are out of the school system as they are potential child labourers. This view is not widely shared (Burra 2002).

5.3 Classification of Child Labour

UNICEF has classified child labour into three categories:

  • Within the family—children are engaged without pay in domestic house hold tasks, agricultural/pastoral work, handicraft/cottage industries etc.

  • Within the family but outside the home—children do agricultural/pastoral work, which consists of migrant labour, local agriculture work, domestic service, construction work and informal occupations like recycling of waste—employed by others and self employed. Chiefly, these children are engaged with their families in some occupations.

  • Outside the family—children are employed by others in bonded work, apprenticeship, skilled trades (carpet, embroidery, brass/copper work), industrial unskilled occupation/mines, domestic work, commercial work in shop and restaurants, begging, prostitution and pornography.

In India, the workforce is divided into:

Organised Sector

Those who are organised into trade unions—registered or unregistered; and

Unorganised Sector

Those who have not been able to organise in pursuit of a common objective because of constraints, such as casual nature of employment, ignorance and illiteracy, small size of establishment with low capital investment per person employed, scattered nature of establishments and superior strength of the employer operating singly or in combination (this definition also covers agricultural labourers).

The unorganised sector accounts for a whole army of child labour working as domestic servants, helpers or assistants in hotels, restaurants, wayside shops, canteens and similar establishments, hawkers, paper vendors, porters, shoeshine boys, sweepers and scavengers; children working in small workshops and repair shops and helpers at construction sites engaged in breaking stones, loading and unloading goods, etc. This unorganised sector is definitely the greatest employer of child labour in the country. It could be said that more the ‘organised’ sector is brought under protective and prohibitive regulations as far as work of the child is concerned, the greater is the extent to which child workers are pushed into the unorganised sector (Dingwaney 1988). Employers engaging children in the unorganised sector are not answerable to anyone, hence free to act in their own self interest.

In almost all societies, children work, though the forms of their involvement vary. Many children work in hazardous, abusive and exploitative conditions. They are found working among others in the following conditions:

  • Agriculture labour

  • Plantation workers

  • Cultivators

  • Dangerous industries like lock making, fire works, bangle making, glass factories

  • Carpet weaving

  • Handloom industry

  • Construction workers

  • Tea stalls, road side dhabhas

  • As domestic workers carrying out arduous work sometimes all alone at home, sometimes facing physical and sexual abuse

  • Bonded labour

  • Shops and establishments

  • Mines and quarrying

  • As family labour in traditional occupations like embroidery, zari work

  • On the streets as rag pickers, beggars, vendors, shoeshine boys, newspaper and magazine sellers, hawkers, puppeteers and acrobats

The following health hazards have been identified with work in these sectors (Table 5.1):

Table 5.1
Health hazards (Dingwaney 1988)

S. No.


Type of health hazard


Bidi Industry

Chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis


Glass Industry

Asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis, eye defects


Handloom Industry

Asthma, tuberculosis


Zari and embroidery

Eye defects


Gem cutting and diamond cutting

Eye defects



Stunts the growth of the child


Rag pickers

Tetanus, skin disease



Asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis


Stone quarries/slate quarries


Table 5.2
Number of child workers (5–14 years) engaged in hazardous occupations as per 2001 Census


Pan, bidi and cigarettes






Domestic workersa






Brick kilns, titles






Auto-workshop, vehicle repairs



Gem cutting, jewellery









Agarbati, dhoop and detergent making







aMinistry has recently issued notification to include children working as domestic workers and in dhabas/restaurants, hotels, etc. in the list of hazardous occupations w.e.f. 10th October 2006

Source Planning Commission (n.d.)

Report of the International Labour Conference, 1983, asserts that child labour in urban activities, though sometimes found in the organised sectors, can be considered to be a problem mainly of the unorganised sector. The report points out the economic activities in which children participate:


Domestic Work such as cleaning, cooking, childcare and other chores in the child’s own household undertaken by children in almost all societies.



Non-domestic but non-monetary work: this covers such activities as farm work, fuel and water collection and hunting. Even in the urban sector many urban household production units engaged in trade and services as well as in artisanal manufacturing production rely on children for activities such as running errands, guarding goods, marketing etc.



Bonded labour: illegal, it arises as one of the obligations to landlords whereby the provision of child to the landlord is part of the family’s rent or in a situation where children are given in exchange of settlement of debts.



Wage employment: children working as a part of the family group or an individual in agriculture sites, in domestic services, in manufacturing and services activities, etc. They may work on piece-rate or time-rate basis, as regular or casual workers, in jobs that may or may not involve some training.



Marginal work: the types of activities in this category vary in nature and intensity. They may be irregular or of a short-term nature such as selling newspapers, shoe-shining, ‘looking after’ cars, garbage collection and sorting out objects from garbage.

Table 5.2 shows the number of child workers engaged in hazardous occupations as per census 2001.


5.4 Causes of Child Labour

Child labour is one of the pernicious and evil manifestations of the growing volume of all engulfing poverty and exploitation. Today, the third world is a basketful of cheap labour force: the adult labour is cheap and child labour is the cheapest for the capitalists, and for any owner of means of production to reap profits. Child workers are the most vulnerable human factor in the production process. Today, the existence of 250 million working children in the world is not a coincidence. It is a systematic outcome engendered by the process of capitalist exploitation (Rehman et al. 2002).

The Indian position rests on deeply held beliefs that there is division between people who work with their minds and rule, and people who work with their hands and are ruled, and that education should reinforce rather than break down this division. These beliefs are closely tied to religious notions and to the premises that underline India’s hierarchical caste system (Weiner 1991). No doubt, children who work do come from highly impoverished homes mostly from the lower castes.

The causes of why children work when they should be enjoying childhood and learning skills which would make them functional and productive adults are many. Poverty has been accused to be the biggest reason for swarming child labour in India. Poor parents perceive many advantages in children taking up jobs. They feel that job disciplines them, protects them against delinquency and also provides opportunity for learning financially viable work.


I recruited a young 16–17 year old girl to do my house hold jobs. She was to stay with me for all 24 h. I housed her in my servant quarters with my other two maids who had been with me for past 2 years or so. Her mother lived in a close by slum. This girl had been with me for about 3 weeks when she developed a strange pain in her chest. I had her mother’s mobile number, and I called her. Once she came, I decided to send her home. I gave her mother some money for her treatment and told her to get her back when she was better.

After a few days, I checked her condition, her mother said she was better but not fit enough to join back. I called after a few days again, she said she will come and meet me soon. Her mother came in the next day with her little son, who looked 8–9 year old to me. She said ‘munni’ was still unwell, so she was planning to take her to Kolkata where her father lived, so I should pay her whatever was her due. I did so. Then came a strange request. She said, keep my son in your house. He will do dusting, washing, running errands, small jobs. Pay him whatever you wish to. She added, “he is full day loitering in the slums with his vagrant friends. I am not home to keep an eye on him. If this continues for some more time, he will be totally spoilt”. She pleaded to me, “please keep him at your house. He will serve you and also learn some work in the process and also stay away from bad company”.

Here was the dilemma!! We say no child labour. Was this little boy better-off working in my home or staying unsupervised at his own house in the thick of urban slums of Delhi, in company of anti-social influences? We can succeed in abolishing child labour from our country only if we simultaneously have a rehabilitation plan in hand for children freed from the labour force.

For the curious readers, I did not hire the boy for my household work. I also learnt that the girl working for me, ‘munni’, had been married away within just a few days of leaving from my home. She was certainly a sick girl. And now a child bride. But these are the compulsions of poverty!

The root cause of child labour lies in abject poverty. Instances where social and economic condition of family have improved, children go to school and child labour has virtually disappeared. So any society, which wants its children to be free to learn and play, must first free its entire population from fear of want, thus ensuring fulfilment of basic needs of all people. This includes such essentials as food, shelter, clothing, water and education for children, and training and provision of gainful employment for parents. But, can poverty alone or even public apathy explain the fact that thousands of children spend their childhood rummaging through dustbins and heaps of filth to pick rags, waste paper, used polythene bags and bits of broken glass or scraps of metal to enable them to earn a few rupees a day, which is not enough to buy them even dry rotis and dal? They often look through the same dustbins to pick up food thrown away by the affluent (Dingwaney 1988).

Mostly children work as the parents are not able to financially support their families. Parents are forced to send their children to work for reasons of survival, at times even in hazardous occupations, ignoring the fact that this is wrong. Monetary constraints, need for food, shelter, clothing forces the children to premature labour. Overpopulation has been also cited as another reason for child labour. When there are limited means and many mouths to feed, there are few options but each feeds self as well as supports the remaining family. Children loose out on childhood and now are performing adult role of being economically productive. Parents themselves are uneducated, ignorant and unexposed and do not realise the salience of education and developmental opportunities in early childhood, which would prepare children much better for their impending future adult roles. Children miss on prospects of wholesome physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. The family practice to inculcate traditional skills in children also pulls little ones inexorably in the trap of child labour, as they never get the opportunity to learn anything else.

The more generally held is the view that in a society where basic needs have not been satisfied, the income of the chid is critical to the family’s survival. It is often argued that poverty is a ‘harsh reality’ and children have to work in order to survive. How will poor families survive without the additional income of the children? It is seldom taken into account that children’s earnings are pathetically meagre, and that it is precisely because of the vast numbers of children in the workforce in all the sectors of the economy that adult wages are depressed (Burra 2002).

“People are poor so they need the income from their child’s labour. Therefore to eliminate child labour you must eliminate poverty, else people will starve”-this argument may sound convincing, but is erroneous. The situation persists because neither the policy makers nor the influential voices in the society believe that we can eliminate child labour. That is a problem to be solved on another day, in another realm (Sinha 2011).

Given the need to meet subsistence requirements on the one hand and growing pauperisation resulting from land alienation on the other, the pressure on rural households to find alternative sources of survival by all means, including the labour of the children, whether under family control or under contract to prospective employers and labour recruiters, becomes almost insurmountable.

Ineffective child labour laws and the tacit acceptance these provide to child labour in non-listed processes and occupation becomes a hindrance in combating child labour. As per Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act (CLPRA), child labour is NOT banned in toto in India. It is prohibited in certain ‘hazardous’ occupations and processes, while child work conditions are regulated in certain other occupations and processes. Children working as part of family are exempted from the penal provisions of the law, the act is also silent about children working in the agriculture sector and other unorganised informal sectors.

Adult unemployment and urbanisation also causes child labour. Adults often find it difficult to find jobs because factory owners find it more beneficial to employ children at cheap rates. A 1997 AusAid report has it that in Bangladesh ‘one in ten in the labour force is under 14, displacing two to ten million adults from employment’. The report further says that in the absence of an effective compulsory education system, increasing number of children are coming to the labour market, to compete with adults in both the formal and informal sectors (AusAid 1997).

Also, children are easy to exploit as they are not part of trade unions, protest little, are easy to mould and work enthusiastically. This attitude also makes it difficult for adults to find jobs in factories, forcing them to drive their little ones to work to keep the fire burning in their homes.

It is documented in the literature as to how alcoholism and entertainment needs of the fathers contributes substantially to the poverty of the family and propels children into work in order to sustain wasteful expenditure (Burra 2002). In India, children are considered a property of parents and in many poor households, children are considered an economic asset. It is difficult to find remorse among parents who not only make children work, but also sell them to rich landlords to pay off their debts etc. Adult exploitation of children is also evident on many occasions. Elders relax at home and live on the labour of poor helpless children.

Broadly, the reasons for child labour can be classified as under:

1. Social Reasons

As we have noted above, India’s social structure is highly differentiated in terms of caste, religion, race, etc. In the social hierarchy those who are placed at the lower rung are generally the labouring masses without any means of production except their own labour power. As a result, as observed by Voll (1999), we find that “By far the majority of child labourers in India belonged to the so-called ‘lower castes’ (Dalits/Harijans), the so-called ‘tribals’ (Adivasis) and to the Muslim religious minority. Most child labourers do not belong to the ‘upper castes’, which constitute about 17–18 % of Indian society” (Voll 1999). It has been a common practice in the society for children from lower castes to work, while children from upper castes went to school.

2. Economic Reasons

Lack of family’s ability to take care of the needs of children due to monetary constraints is a major reason for child labour. The adult members may be unemployed, or be working on low wages which are insufficient to manage the needs of the family. The basic survival of these children at times depends on the wages that they earn.

3. Legal Reasons

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) act does not summarily ban child labour. With a weak legislation, we have little hope to fight against child labour. The penal provisions are not deterrent enough. Also, there are too many loopholes in the act which can provide an escape route to the offenders.

4. Political Reasons

In a democratic political system where there is universal franchise and all citizens can vote, one cannot but wonder if people are deliberately kept vulnerable and dependent. It is very easy to buy the loyalty of people in extreme poverty. So, would it be fair to say that it suits our political system to have poverty and child labours?

5. Education System

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