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Child Labor Persists in India Despite New Laws


It has been one year since laws went into effect in India banning children from working in homes, hotels and restaurants. But as VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi, there appears to be little progress in reducing the number of working children in India, believed to have more young laborers than any other nation in the world.

India has had laws since the 1930s banning children from working. Lawmakers pass new laws to protect children and ensure that even the most disadvantaged can receive an education.

But the pressure on poor children - often from their own parents - to work remains strong.

Pradeep Narayanan is in charge of policy and research at the advocacy group, Child Rights and You (CRY). "They stay back in villages and continue to work within their own family helping their parents, thus being deprived of various development opportunities," says Narayanan, "or they migrate with their parents, or they run away from the homes into the urban or semi-urban areas, where they start looking for various job options."

Babu Lal is 11 years old. He says an abusive father raised him, and he worked in his uncle's fields in Uttar Pradesh. Babu says he wants to be a police inspector when he grows up so he can rescue children like himself.

Babu is among the lucky few rescued from a childhood of tough labor. He now lives in a shelter for children on the outskirts of New Delhi.

More typical in the capital are scenes of children on the streets from early morning until late at night, selling balls or books - or begging, darting in and out of traffic. Others labor at roadside food stalls.

At the bottom of the heap are boys like a rag-picker, who earns money by rummaging through garbage heaps. There are no laws keeping children from picking trash. He claims to earn an average of $15 a week by picking through trash 12 hours a day. He has seven siblings, three of them in school. His father works in a park and his mother at a flour mill.

Harjout Kaur is director of the child labor division at the Labor Ministry. She says that since a new law last year barred children from working as household servants and in restaurants and hotels, about 70,000 employers were raided, but only 7,000 citations were issued.

"These children are taken out [of the workplace] and sent back home," says Kaur. "But after a while they'll again come back to the same situations, because the situations back home remain the same. So the strategy is that as far as possible, if their parents are able to take care of them they should be sent back. But in situations where they are not, they could be kept in the residential schools within the place of work itself."

Vikram Srivastava is the manager of development support at CRY. He calls the government activities a token effort. "There's no strategic policy, plan or long-term or short-term intervention plan by the government," he says. "So even if there are rescues or ... a few employers who have been prosecuted, these things do not help in the long run."

Child rights activists complain that India's government is too focused on legislation liberalizing trade and industry.

"They get implemented very fast and very effectively," adds Narayanan. "But the policies on social sector - whether it is health, child labor or education - policies don't get implemented."

At the Labor Ministry, Harjout Kaur rejects suggestions that the government is not sincere about the child labor problem. "There has been a lot of political will, a lot of will on the part of the government to eradicate child labor in the country," says Kaur. "Child labor is not a simple problem. It's a very complex problem. It's a result of a number of socio-economic factors."

One of the factors is very simple to see. For employers, customers and working children in India, there is nothing shameful about a child working at the cost of an education.

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