The discussion on child's right and child labour is taking place in a particular international context, i.e. that of globalisation. The changed international context is crucial to understanding the problem of child labour. It is not accidental that the present focus on the problem is taking place at a time when most of the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe have had, in the face of a mounting economic and political crisis to adopt policies of structural adjustment which consciously attempt to change the nature of economic relationship in these societies. Needless to say that structural adjustment programmes have been forced upon the developing nations by the IMF and WB as part of a package deal for being bailed out of the debt crisis.
As a consequence of structural adjustment programmes, there has been a fundamental shift in the very perception of development from models with an emphasis on state intervention, import substitution and a commitment on the part of the state to social welfare towards a model which upholds greater integration in the world economy, a deification of the market as the only arbiter of efficiency and growth and an abdication of the responsibility of the state for the welfare of its citizens.
An integral element in the neo-liberal paradigm is that growth is crucial and that this growth will slowly trickle down to the poor in the long run. However, many proponents of the new philosophy are also coming to realize that significant sections of the population are worse off than earlier, [the 'new poor'] and therefore press the need for a 'human' face to structural adjustment.
One important consequence of this has been a shift in the very manner in which human development is perceived. As an illustration of this we would draw attention to a study done by the UNICEF on the Impact of World Recession on Children (1984). Summing up the various case-studies, the authors refer to the central concerns of the development literature of the late 1960's to the early eighties wherein poverty, malnutrition, high infant and overall mortality primarily result from structural causes and progress in human welfare depends more on the pattern rather than the rate of economic growth. Specifically, domestic factors such as unequal land distribution, insecure and inequitous tenancy agreements, a skewed distribution of income, misuse of public finance and the socio-cultural marginalisation of entire sections of the population on religious, class and ethnic grounds have a far greater influence on standards of living than the growth - or the decline - of the overall economy. But these are further exacerbated by the operation of the international system wherein developing countries are dependent in myriad ways on industrialized nations. 'Colonial inheritance, technical and financial dependence structures and chronically deteriorating terms of trade, and more recently heavy indebtedness, have contributed and still do contribute very distinctly and very directly to the impoverishment of large sections of Third World populations' (Richard Jolly and Giovanni Andrea Cornia, p. 211, 1984).
There are many other dimensions to the neo-liberal paradigm, some of which has been implicitly critiqued by the editors of the UNICEF study, but what is important for our purposes is that ironically, while a greater integration of structures and processes is taking place, an ideology is being propounded which parcels out social reality into water-tight compartments. Globalization of the economy is being accompanied by a fragmentation of social vision. Different departments have been created to deal with the different segments of the fall-out of structural adjustment, with international agencies taking charge of a separate segment each, whether it be habitat, children's right, child labour, women, etc. While the number of such 'departments' proliferate with the multiplication of social problems, the juggernaut of globalisation moves on integrating not only economy structures but also globalising social evils. This serves to conceal the structural links that bind the different fragments together along with concealing the basic chasm between the North and South that persists and is in fact widening.
We would like in our presentation to focus in an unabashed manner on the structural roots of the phenomena of child labour, its embeddedness in the wider social matrix and thereby its inter-relatedness to wider social processes.
One would like to begin by reiterating a very obvious truism that the phenomenon of child labour cannot be understood or analysed outside the context of the family/household. The typical peasant household in India would try to achieve a certain balance between labour and consumption depending upon the size of the family, the number of working members and the size and quality of land owned or worked on. This equilibrium helps the family to exist as a unit in the most trying situations. Child work/labour cannot be torn out of this very real social context, and in fact is an integral part of the survival strategy of households.
The second point one would like to make is the inter-connectedness of the family/household to the wider structures of the society, be it community caste, tribe and/or class and is susceptibility to the wider social economic and political processes. The micro structure of the family/kin group and its relationship to the macro structure of the state and the international system is quite complex, more so in a society like India which is characterized by a diversity of structures.
Studies have shown that the brunt of the present crisis and shocks of globalization are being born by the families, principally of the poor and within the families - it is the women in the families. The pressures on women to increase family income in the face of inflation and decreasing social sector budgets has resulted in more children being put to work either to substitute for the mother in the domestic chores in the case of girls or to add to the family kitty.
Researches on the impact of structural adjustments policies in the developing countries both on women and children have highlighted the deleterious consequences for the overall situation of children and the tremendous burden that women have to bear in facing the economic and social hardship.
The studies emphasized certain features: increasing number of women are entering the labour force as compared to men, and that too primarily in the informal sector; men start losing jobs or are pushed into casual work with a loss of steady income, women start looking for work outside the house to desperately maintain retain minimum standards of living. Studies have documented women's increased labour force participation rates in the Caribbean, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, the Philippines, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador among others. (Sparr, Pamela (ed.) 1994, p. 21).
A UNICEF study on the impact of crisis observes:
'From 1981 onwards the rate of female employment increases exponentially... This means that at the most critical point in the crisis, there was a marked drop in male employment going hand in hand with an increase - unparalleled in the last few decades - in the presence of women in employment. This trend is almost certainly a compensatory mechanism to maintain the family economy.' (UNICEF - Poor Women and the Economic Crisis: The Invisible Adjustment. Second Edition, Santiago, pp. 66-67)
This trend, i.e. of increasing female labour force participation, primarily in the informal sector, has been observed in all developing countries where structural adjustment has been accompanied by prolonged recessions (Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa).
The impact of the SAP package have negatively affected women with regard to access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, to common property resources, access to education and skill formation, implications for total household income of labouring households in different sectors and the gender-based distribution within households, access to needs for reproduction and nurture of the young including not only health care but also child care, access to productive employment outside the home, control over the allocation of resources both socially and within the households. All of these have been affected adversely not only because of a reduction in government expenditure but also from the general withdrawal of the state from provision of goods and services and a greater reliance on market mechanisms.
The move from formal employment to informal employment and from the public to private sectors favours the feminization of employment at the margins but always in more insecure and poorly paid and more onerous conditions.
Thus structural adjustment policies lead to fall in real wages, unemployment and reduced availability of and cuts in subsidies on basic goods and services. All this affects woman in their role as producers, mothers, household managers, community organizers and the implications are invariably negative in terms of reduced incomes, standard of living and a greater burden on unpaid work (Ghosh, Jayati, 1996).
In the eighties (considered a 'lost decade' for the people of Africa and Latin America, when structural adjustment programmes were imposed on more than 70 developing countries) UNICEF commissioned a study on the impact of structural adjustment programmes on children. The study - 'Adjustment with a Human Face' - in two volumes, attempted an analytical framework to measure the consequences of structural adjustment on children (Giovanni Cornia, Richard Jolly, Frances Stewart, 1988). Three sets of variables have been isolated in the production of child welfare:
(a) Real resources in cash or kind at the household level. Here, three main variables influence the level of resources i.e. subsistence production, money income (whether from wage, self-employment or from transfers), and the rate of inflation, particularly for food; (b) Government expenditure on health, education, child care, water and environmental sanitation, supplementary feeding and food subsidies; (c) Family and community characteristics. The three elements that strongly influence child welfare within the household (and the community) are the time, health and skill (measured by the educational level) of the parents, particularly the mother.
According to the authors, all the three sets of variables delineated above change during periods of recession and 'indiscriminate' economic adjustment. While money income, government expenditure, food prices and mother's time and health respond quickly to changes in economic aggregates, subsistence production is influenced more by structural variables than by fluctuations in the monetised sector of the economy. While the mother's level of education is generally unaffected by the crisis, the mother's health and time change markedly in time of economic crisis. The different determinants of child welfare would affect child welfare with varying intensity and speed depending upon the variable selected. In general, it would be expected that the crisis shows its first effect in terms of increasing child labour and school drop-outs while more acute forms of social stress like malnutrition and eventually mortality would become evident only after severe and cumulative decline have occurred (Cornia et al, 1988, p. 37-38). The study concludes that the economic changes of the 1980s triggered a sharp reversal in the trend towards improvement in health, nutrition and educational standards of children. (Cornia et al, 1988, p. 27).
Deterioration in child welfare was documented in 8 countries in Latin America, 16 in sub-Saharan Africa, 3 in North Africa and the Middle East and 4 in South and East Asia. In the eighties, the study notes that per capita GDP fell by 10% in Latin America. Employment growth slowed down, real wages fell, income inequalities worsened and the consumption of the poor declined, government expenditures on social services declined. The consequences of all this was disastrous for children.
The incidence of malnutrition among children increased in Brazil, Chile, Botswana, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Peru and the Philippines. The incidence of low birth weights rose between 1979 and 1986 in several countries including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador. In Africa, between 1980 and 1989, per capita GDP for sub-Saharan Africa dropped by a fifth. In the eighties, the number of African countries in the category of the least developed countries of the world rose from 16 to 28. In 1990, 14 African countries had an under-5 mortality rate that was above 200 per 1000 and 8 countries had an IMR that was above 200 per 1000 (UNICEF 1992). In Brazil, over and above the general deterioration in the health of children consequent upon the new policies the ILO in 1992 noted that 12 million adolescents (in the 14-18 age-group) were working. The Federation of Agricultural workers of Pernambuco estimated that 30 per cent of the region's workers were children below the age of ten. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, out of 2.9 million children and adolescents working in agriculture, 62.3% received no wages. The ILO estimated that 7 million children in Brazil worked as slaves and prostitutes.
That child labour is a survival strategy in the face of crisis is clear from the experiences of many countries. A UNICEF study on Adjustment Policies in Ghana during the 1980s refer to the increasing intensity of child labour and its interconnections with deepening poverty and reduced access to basic services. While some forms of child labour (domestic household chores and seasonal agricultural work) was not unknown earlier in Ghana, with households becoming poorer, child labour was more crucial to making ends meet and had intensified, leading to high drop out rates especially among girls, increased child labour in the urban informal sector, and pawning of children into domestic service to reduce the living cost of poor households [Cornia, Jolly, Stewart, 1988, Vol. II, p. 106].
In Peru, the effect of stabilisation policies have led to contractions in incomes and employment in the urban, modern, sector, while reduced social expenditures have had a greater impact in rural areas. There was an overall decline in real public expenditures in social sectors between 1977 and 1985, and in 1985 per capita food consumption was 26 per cent lower than the already low levels of consumption ten years earlier. All these converged and resulted in an overall decline of living standards of the population, higher morbidity, greater numbers of children prematurely in the labour market, and higher rate of school drop-outs. [Leonel Figueroa, in Cornia, Jolly & Stewart, 1988, Vol. II, p. 175].
The UNICEF study of the Philippines also documents an increase in child labour with meagre opportunities for adult employment. In Metro Manila alone, street children numbered from 40,000 to 75,000 and the incidence of children begging, stealing, scavenging through refuse and engaging in prostitution also increased. (UNICEF, 1988, p. 213) The authors of the UNICEF study are emphatic about the absolutely disastrous consequences of the adoption of the SAP's on the welfare of children. However, their conclusions suggest 'a broader approach', one which combines adjustment with the protection of the vulnerable and the restoration of economic growth, i.e. adjustment with a human face. (Cornia, Jolly and Stewart, 1988, pp. 290-291).
The thrust of such an approach is that the adoption of a different set of policies is not only desirable but also feasible to prevent disasters in the short run which will help adjustment in the proverbial long run. However, it is our contention that the very rationale of the neo-liberal paradigm assumes that for the all-important goal of economic growth, some sections of the population specifically the poor have to be sacrificed or dispensed with. Cornia et al believe that it is possible to give a human face to SAP but this to our mind is unfeasible in the long run precisely because the polarizing logic of the global system will necessarily perpetuate uneven development and the core-periphery distinction will persist and even exacerbate. Of course, globalisation will lead to the creation of new elite islands in the periphery - a globalised elite - but this will further intensity the division between the rich and the poor and more will join the rank of the poor and the destitute in the Third World. The same process is also at work in the developed world.
One consequence of the adoption of SAPs has been an increase in child labour. In fact, Cornia et al state that an increase in child labour and school
drop-outs is one of the more immediate consequences of the crisis. Specifically in India they have resulted in an overall increase in social and economic insecurity which puts extreme pressure on the families of the poor to somehow cope and survive. Besides, the expansion of the informal section operates both indirectly and directly to increase child labour. The expansion of the informal sector (wherein labour intensive processes requiring lower level skills are farmed out) has led to an increase in women working under onerous conditions to eke out a livelihood. This has invariably meant that children also start working with their mothers or do various domestic chores to relieve their mothers for work outside the home. More important, the subsidiaries of multinational corporations subcontract part of their production to small firms which rely heavily on child labour. Even large export-oriented national enterprises resort to similar sub-contracting.
Here it would be instructive to mention the World Development Report (1995), Workers in an Integrating World. In this report the World Bank is actually in favour of the trend towards informalisation. The reasons for this are revealing: 'In many Latin American, South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, labour laws establish onerous job security regulations, rendering hiring decisions practically irreversible and the system of worker representation and dispute resolution is subject to often unpredictable government decision-making adding uncertainty to firms' estimates of future labour cost'. (World Developmental Report 1995, p. 34) But elsewhere in the report the World Bank tries to sanitise this approach by rejecting policies that 'favour the formation of small group of workers in high-productivity activities' which lead to dualism, segmentation of the labour force into privileged and under-privileged groups that 'tends to close the formal sector off from broader influences from the labour market, at the cost of job growth.'
However, the real thrust of such an approach is to abdicate any responsibility for the protection, security and reproduction of the huge work force in the rural and urban sector of the economy and impose the whole burden of the reproduction of labour power on an increasingly stagnant and impoverishing agriculture and rural hinterland, on caste, community and extended kin networks (which are being rendered fragile by the operation of the market forces), on backward regions, on poor families and specifically the women and the children.
According to the 1991 census India has a child population (0-14 years) of 197 millions. According to estimates based on 1991 census, there are 12.7 million full-time child workers, and about 10.6 million marginal child workers.
The agricultural sector employed 76 per cent of child labour in 1991. The percentage of child labour involved in manufacturing rose from 3.1 per cent of total child labour in 1971 to 5.7 per cent in 1991 (Robert Castle, D.P. Chaudhri, Chris Nyland and Trang Nguyen, 1997). Out of the 12.7 million full-time child labourers, 35.2 per cent worked as cultivators while 42.5% were agricultural labourers. Children in peasant families grow up assisting the family in various tasks. They assist in secondary agricultural activities - the boys graze cattle, assist in agricultural work, while the girls assist in household chores and looking after young siblings, thus releasing the mother for work outside the home. In all peasant homes, work is an integral part of socialization of the child. In situations of extreme distress, where families have been pauperized and made destitute, children are also sold off into bondage to pay off family debts or just to stave off starvation. It is estimated that there were 2.6 million bonded labourers, of which at least 8% were children.
In artisan households, they start working as apprentices fairly young so as to learn the occupations that will be their calling in later life. Thus, among the communities of potters, blacksmiths, rope-makers, basket-weavers, handloom-weavers etc. children start learning their skills at quite a young age as preparation for their vocations in adult life.
In the urban areas child labourers are concentrated in the informal sector and in the small scale cottage industries where they are generally working for paltry wages and in establishments where conditions of work are far more oppressive and exploitative than the less oppressive and hostile precincts of a home. They are found in tea stalls, restaurants, workshops, factories and working as domestic servants, apart from the street-children who survive on rag-picking, carrying loads and being shoe-shine boys.
In industry, children work as full-time workers in the carpet industry, located in the Mirzapur Bhadohi belt in Uttar Pradesh and in Jammu and Kashmir, the match and fireworks industry in Tamil Nadu, the diamond-cutting units in Surat, the glass industry in Ferozabad, the brassware industry in Moradabad, silk-weaving at Varanasi, the pottery unit at Khurja and the tea plantations of Assam and Bengal.
If one were to look at the spatial concentration of child labour, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu account for most of the child labour in India. Among these states the states of the backward and poverty-stricken heartland of India account for a large percentage of child labour.
The overwhelming majority of child labourers in India come from communities and groups which are at the lower rungs of our traditional, caste-based social hierarchy, i.e. the SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities, especially the Muslims. These also constitute the bulk of the small and marginal peasantry, landless and agricultural labourers and artisan groups. This amounts to the majority of the Indian population. These, in short are the poor of India and it is from the families and communities of the poor that child labourers come. It is therefore, not accidental that studies of many of the industries where there is a substantial presence of child labour like the carpet industry, the match, brassware, glass and bangle, lockmaking, slate, gem-polishing industries and the tea plantations show that the overwhelming majority of the children working in these industries come from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Muslim communities.
The communities which supply the bulk of India's child labourers are the victims of a social system which is characterized by unequal access to the principal productive resources and assets. The agrarian structure is still by and large characterized by extreme inequities, with a small handful of landowners owning and controlling most of the land, and the vast majority of small and marginal peasantry operating small and uneconomic land-holdings, forced to turn to agricultural labour for a period ranging from 3 to 7 months of the year. In 1992, 72 per cent of the rural households owned less than 2.5 acres of land. Those who are landless have of course to rely only on agricultural and other labour to earn their livelihood. The inequities of the traditional social order have been further aggravated due to the development model that has been pursued. According to official data, there are today 73.05 million agricultural labourers, 48.5 million males and 28.3 million females. Agricultural labourers can expect, on an average to find work for about a 100 days in a year. Over the last three decades, development policies have aggravated the condition of the peasantry with increasing numbers of the small and marginal peasantry slipping into the ranks of agricultural labourers. Between 1961 and 1991, the proportion of cultivators has declined while that of agricultural labourers has increased. This means that a vast section of our population dependent on land and agriculture for their livelihood are getting pauperized and getting alienated from land. The tribals who constitute about 8% of the population are also getting alienated from traditionally held lands either through the chicanery of vested interests or through development projects. The adoption of structural adjustment programmes has resulted in an overall worsening on many fronts.
The general trend whereby the mass of producers have been losing control over any means of livelihood which we noted earlier, has exacerbated. There has been a consistent decline in the share of the self-employed in the work force from 61.4 per cent in 1970-73 to 54.8 per cent in 1993-94 while the share of the self-employed in agriculture in the total rural work-force declined from 49.77 per cent in 1987-88 to 44.4 percent in 1993-94 [Jayadevan, C.M: 'Casualisation of Work Force in India: An Analysis of Spatial Variations', IJLE, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1996, p. 763]. An important pointer to the distressing conditions prevalent with regard to employment opportunities (as well as underemployment) is the share of casual labour in the work-force. As observed by Jayadevan: 'The unemployed and underemployed are too poor to remain unemployed for any significant length of time. They have little choice except to end up taking any casual work wage labour on a day to day basis irrespective of the quantum of return.' These hordes of casual workers suffer from frequent unemployment and mostly remain in abysmal poverty.
The proportion of regular wage/salary workers in the work force declined from 12.1 per cent in 1972-73 to 10 per cent in 1987-88 and to 8.3 per cent in 1993-94 in the case of rural males. It also declined in the case of rural females from 4.1 percent in 1972-73 to 3.7 per cent in 1987-88 to 2.8 per cent in 1993-94. This has increased the percentage of casual wage labour from 22.0 per cent in 1972-73 to 31.4 percent in 1982-83 and to 33.8 per cent in 1993-94 in the case of rural males while it increased from 31.4 per cent in 1972-73 to 35.5 per cent in 1987-88 and to 38.7 per cent in 1993-94 in the case of rural females (ibid, p. 765). The extreme insecurity faced by the bulk of rural households is evidenced by the fact that 37 per cent of rural Indians are landless and they get employment only for 137 days in a year, and non-agricultural labour gets worker for only 152 days in a year. There is a great underestimation of those living on daily wages since both the NSS and the Census categorise as workers only those who work for 180 days in a year.
A study on the 'Social Cost of Economic Reforms' conducted by Gupta and Pal for the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi reveals that the poverty ratio shot up from 35.5 per cent in 1990-91 to 39 per cent in 1993-94, and that the number of poor increased by 48 million in the 3-year period.
The artisan groups are also facing tremendous crisis. The handloom sector is a major employer, next to agriculture, with about 25 lakh weavers. Official policy leading to an increase in cotton yarn prices led to a severe crisis, leading to suicide and starvation deaths amongst the weavers. The plight of other artisan groups is no better.
The artisans, once the backbone of the Indian economy, are facing a tremendous survival crisis. The artisanal population in 1980 may be estimated to be anywhere between 74.53 lakhs to 1.25 crore persons. An analysis of the changes that have occurred between 1961 and 1981 show that: a) there was an overall contraction of around 29 per cent in the artisanal population; b) the employment share of the artisanal sector in relation to the non-household or organized sector declined in most of the industrial groups. This was particularly so in the case of jewellery work, leather work and textile work; c) there was a net decline in the number of workers in the artisanal sector in all the groups; d) there was a net decline in the number of female workers in the artisanal sector in most of the industry groups. (Dev, Mahendra, S. 'Social Security for Indian Workers: Performance and Issues, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1996).
The agricultural labourers, cultivators and the artisans constitute the bulk of the rural poor. These are also the very people who migrate to the cities with every periodic drought or famine or due to 'development' projects and who constitute the urban poor. It is these groups that provide the bulk of the labour to the burgeoning informal sector.
These recurrent disasters seriously hamper the capacity of these families to physically survive. After every such disaster, their options for survival are further constricted leading these families, men, women and children to sell their labour power far below subsistence levels. Child labour in such a situation is a survival strategy.
When the process of marginalisation goes below a certain threshold, i.e. when families slip below the poverty line, then the phenomenon of child labour appears. Thus at time of drought, famine and other such natural and social disasters, when distress is acute, millions of families of landless and agricultural labourers, poor and marginal peasants and artisans face tremendous survival crisis.
The atmosphere of overall insecurity which has been endemic in the Indian social scene has only further intensified with the introduction of the 'reform' under SAP.
Per capita availability of food grains has also gone down in the post reform period. In 1991 it was 510.1 grams per day, while it declined to 468.8, 462.7, 469.5 and 501.9 grams per day for the years 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 respectively (ibid.).
While there has been a shift in consumption patterns from cereals to non-cereals, in the case of the bottom 30 per cent of the population, there has hardly been much improvement in the cereal and nutrient intake in the rural and urban areas. The per capita food intake of the poorest 30 per cent was 1,599 kilo calories per day in the rural areas and 1,704 kilo calories per day in the urban areas as compared to the required 2,200 calories per person per day. This chronic food insecurity would affect the health and nutrition of both adults and children among the poor. The irony is that despite self-sufficiency in food-grains, malnutrition is widespread, more so among women and children. The proportion of pregnant women with anaemia is as high as 88 per cent and about 53 per cent of the children under 5 were under-weight at the all-Indian level in 1993-94. The percentage of child malnutrition is higher in Bihar (63) Uttar Pradesh (59), West Bengal (57), Madhya Pradesh (57) and Maharashtra (54) (ibid.).
It is important to note that it is not individuals but families and households that face the survival crisis and so the strategies that purport to cope with the problem have to deal with the families.
According to the available data, at least 39% of India's population is below the poverty line, the bulk of the poor being in the rural areas. The numbers below the poverty line in the rural area in 1993-94 was 244.87 million and 79.4 million in urban areas. An alternative estimate by the NCAER for 1994, based on a four-year study of 33,000 rural households in 16 states came to the conclusion that 16 per cent of the rural population had access to less then Rs. 3 per day.
It is within the context of these abysmal poverty levels that one has to view the situation of the families and consequent real-life choices (or lack of them) that are thrust on them. The high maternal and infant mortality rates, the shocking extent of malnutrition of both adults and children (65% of Indian children are under-nourished) the extreme vulnerability to disease, appalling literacy levels, and the almost endemic poverty are part of an integral whole, and the phenomenon of child labour cannot be torn out of this context. In short, child welfare cannot be divorced from human welfare.
Policy makers and social analysts at the international level have oscillated between a position of total abolition and amelioration of the conditions of child labour. But the ground realities have led to an awkward combination of the abolitionist approach with one which emphasizes amelioration of the conditions of child labour. This is reflected in the ILO's IPEC programme, the long-term objective of which is to eliminate child labour, but a transitional period is envisaged wherein the attempt is to 'regulate and humanize' the employment of children.
Of late, however there has been an increase in the tide of abolitionism with international organizations, like UNICEF taking a position that abolition of child labour is not negotiable, and that child labour must be ended even before poverty is ended. Ironically, this current of abolitionism is mounting precisely at a time when the developing world is forced to accept policies of structural adjustment, which make the position of these countries and the poor in them much more vulnerable. The negative consequences of these policies have been acknowledged with the international agencies articulating the need for a 'human face' to structural adjustment. One of the major elements of the strategy for the total abolition of child labour is the emphasis on education. The UNICEF sees education as the cutting edge of the strategies to prevent and eliminate child labour. According to UNICEF, there is no single, more relevant policy instrument for eliminating child labour. Having said this the UNICEF is also constrained to state that strategies complementary to education need to be 'concurrently implemented.' These include income generation, payment of minimum wages, empowerment of women, law enforcement and convergence of social services on identified families of child labourers.
Many NGOs in India have also been articulating the viewpoints which undercuts the approach that shocking poverty, arising out of unequal access to productive assets and resources, structurally in-built inequities and a pattern of development which further intensifies these factors, is the root cause for the prevalence of child labour amongst the poor. The formulation that has emerged from this school of thinking is: poverty is not the cause of child labour, child labour is the cause of poverty - compulsory education, according to these NGOs is the only weapon to tackle the problem of child labour.
The strategy of compulsory education as the core of policy initiatives to end child labour glosses over the complex social matrix within which child labour is embedded, reproduced and sustained. This matrix is characterized by stagnation in agricultural and handicrafts, fast eroding control over means of livelihood of the mass of peasantry, artisans, fisher-folk etc. and a commercialization of the entire economy which wipes out the basic producers. Besides there is an implicit assumption that all learning takes place only in schools, which is problematic in itself.
The most important lacuna in this position, however, is that it ignores the present-day international context, i.e. of acute world-wide crisis and the structural links that bind the countries of the South to the North. The example of Sri Lanka is often mentioned as a success story. But the high literacy rate achieved by Sri Lanka was due to heavy state expenditure in health and education. One wonders whether such examples are relevant when the state is withdrawing altogether from its commitment to social welfare.
What is distressing is that the Government of India's position while acknowledging the deep structural roots of the problem and advocating a phased abolition of exploitative child labour, has been characterized by a deplorable lack of political will. Of late even the government's standpoint is undergoing a metamorphosis under the impact of the winds of globalisation.
We would like to advocate a strategy which is based on a recognition of the socially variegated manifestation of the phenomenon of children working. This would involve an acknowledgment of the child work/child labour dichotomy, the former being characterized by children working in the family/household while the latter category is constituted by children working for wages either in industry or agriculture. A further distinction needs to be made even amongst the children working for wages and those who are in the most exploitative kinds of situations which needs to be targeted first. Children working in hazardous industries and occupations, bonded child labourers, street children and child prostitutes need urgent attention. Needless to say policy initiatives will have to focus on the families of child labourers if any measure of success is to he achieved. Child prostitutes are a particularly vulnerable group whose problems need redressal on a priority basis.
These families need to be identified and a multi-pronged approach, the core of which would be to address the poverty of these families along with a package of health and education for the children is called for. Even while dealing with hazardous industries a specific analysis of each of these industries has to be undertaken. The fact that most of child labour in these industries is really in the informal sector, specifically small units which come under the category of 'cottage industry' is a fact that has to be taken into account while devising a strategy. One reason for the internationally orchestrated campaign against child labour in the countries of the South is because the small-scale informal sector is really competitive since the cost of reproduction of labour power is borne by poor families, poor regions and specifically by the women and children. The focus on child labour in these sectors tends to ignores the structural linkages both backwards (i.e. stagnating agriculture and which ensures a steady supply of child labourers) and forwards (i.e. the linkages with the international system).
One question that we need to ask ourselves is: in the attempt to get rid of child labour in these industries are we going to contribute to a process whereby the entire small-scale informal sector is going to be wiped out?
Or can we not devise strategies/policies which while addressing the supply dimensions of child labour (i.e. preventing such supply from the catchment areas through all-sided development measures) can also alter the structure of industries in a manner whereby the small-scale informal units can be made viable without having to take recourse to super-exploitation of women and children? In the case of the carpet industry which I had occasion to study one of the problems is the large number of intermediaries between the manufacturer/exporter and the weaver/master craftsman. Co-operatives of the small loom owners/weavers, with these having direct access to the market need to be considered.
A piece-meal approach to the problem of child labour will not work. Getting rid of or even drastically reducing child labour in one particular industry will not deal with the unrelenting 'supply' of child labourers. A holistic approach to the problems is necessary wherein the structural roots of the problem need to be addressed. Otherwise, we may end up pushing child labourers into more onerous and oppressive situations,
The last point that I should like to make is regarding the inter-connections between globalisation and social unrest in the third world. Chossudovsky posits a direct connection between the economic reforms and the intensifying social unrest in the third world. The restructuring of the world economy 'denies individual developing countries the possibilities of building a national economy', transforming the third world into reserves of cheap labour, and thus 'globalising' poverty. (Chossudovsky, M., 1997. p. 1786)
But what is significant is that this is not only economically ruinous but that it exacerbates inter-ethnic, inter-racial, inter-caste and inter-community conflict. Chossudovsky traces how this has happened in Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda. For example, in the case of Somalia, the economic reforms undermined the fragile exchange between the 'nomadic' economy and the 'sedentary' economy.
This aspect of the impact of reforms is particularly significant for a diverse and plural society like India, where the different communities are ranged along a social hierarchy with inequitous access to productive and other resources.
This has ominous consequences for the social fabric in our society and its implications for democratic processes generally.
This is an abridged version of a paper presented in the Seminar on 'Globalisation and Democracy in the Third World', Academy of Third World Studies, Jamai Millia Islamic University, New Delhi on October 7-8, 1997.
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