The Visibly ‘Invisible’


Chhotu – “Chai Dena”,  Gudiya- “Paani Pila”, how often do we come across these instances in our daily life. Chances are – everyday . Of course  living in cities we are inundated with everyday images of child labour , from the street side acrobat trying to draw our attention, to the scrawny hands trying to separate the tyre from the wheel of  our vehicle in a puncture kiosk, or the little boy putting the glasses in front of us in a dhaba, they are all there. Not to talk about those nimble fingers weaving zari in rural looms or rolling beedis in some courtyard in the countryside.  Of course we  cannot do much but, we, as a society can. It is a travesty of human civilization that child labour still exists and will continue to do so in some form or the other for generations to come, mainly due to our apathy.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition (1983) on child labour is by far the most widely accepted definition. It states, ‘Child labour includes children prematurely leading adult lives, working long hours for low wages under conditions damaging to their health and to their physical and mental development, sometimes separated from their families, frequently deprived of meaningful education and training opportunities that could open up for them a better future.’

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi last year, who, through his NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, campaigns for child rights and an end to trafficking – the Nobel Committee brought global attention to a global problem.

But, India is not alone. The ILO [1]estimates that there are 168 million children under 18, of whom many work fulltime. Of them, 85 million are engaged in hazardous work all over the world. However, we are the worst as per the report with Asia and Pacific having the highest number of child labourers that is 78 million or 9.3% of the total child population. In India, the Census of 2011 estimates about 43 million working children in the age group of 5-14 years[2] .

But why do children work ? Simply put, they have nothing else to do. As per ILO, ‘poverty’ is the single greatest cause behind child labour. For impoverished households, income from a child’s work is usually crucial for his/her own survival or of the household, usually ranging from 25%-40% of the household income. Mario Biggeri and Santosh  Mehrotra population, in their seminal paper (presented to UNICEF, 2002) – The Subterranean Child Labour Force: Subcontracted Home Based Manufacturing In Asia – focused on five Asian nations – India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines, indicate that child labour is a serious problem in all five but is not new. They suggest that the causes of child labour include both the demand and supply side. While poverty and unavailability of good schools explain the child labour supply side, they suggest that the growth of low paying informal economy rather than high paying formal economy is amongst the causes on the demand side. Other scholars too suggest rise of informal economy, inability of industries to scale up and lack of modern manufacturing technologies, apart from child labour being cheap labour as major macroeconomic factors, affecting demand and acceptability of child labour .

The formulation of the National Child Labour Policy, 1987, the setting up of a National Authority for Elimination of Child Labour in 1994 and the International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour in partnership with the ILO are some of the measures taken by the government in this regard.

On May 13 , 2015 the Cabinet approved a ban on employment of children below 14 years, with a caveat that children can pursue family businesses, entertainment and sports activities after school or in vacations. The penalty provisions for employing a child have been increased to jail term of three years and fine of up to Rs 50,000. The new bill provides that employment of children below 14 years will be prohibited in all occupations and processes. Besides, the age of prohibition of employment will be linked to age under Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. The new provisions are part of the official amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. The bill also provides for constitution of Child and Adolescent Labour Rehabilitation Fund for one or more districts for the rehabilitation of the child or adolescent rescued. Thus, the Act itself will provide for a fund to carry out rehabilitation activities . (source –TNN)

Many consider the Government of India’s perspective on child labour the primary reason for the persistence of the problem. Specifically, they blame the complete lack of political will in the state to deliver a labour-free childhood to our children. Activists like lawyer Vrinda Grover described the above decision by the cabinet, Government of  India’s  as “regressive’, impacting the most vulnerable people in the country. It goes against the RTE law that says equal opportunity must be provided to children. The provision of home based industries will be used for exploitation of children and betrays the real intent of this government. We are legalizing a horrible reality instead of banning it. (source –TNN)

To put it bluntly, children who work, fail to get necessary education. They do not get the opportunity to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually ultimately limiting their ability to contribute to their own well-being as well as to the community they live in.

Justice V .R. Krishna Iyer Former Judge, Supreme Court of India in Child and the Law in India, 1998 had said : “ ‘The finest investment in the future for any country to make is in the nourishment, physical and mental, to babies, boys and girls. Every matchbox or cracker, every bangle, every brassware, every handmade carpet or polished precious stone has on it streaks of innocent blood and tormented tears of some child forced to slave. No alibi can absolve this crime of State and society and rightly our moral pretensions and spiritual credentials hardly carry conviction within or without Bharat.”



By – Rupa Chatterjee, Sr. Programme Manager,



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