Indian Cabinet Member Under Fire for Use of Child Labor

India's Cabinet minister for rural development faces demands for his dismissal after television news reports showed scenes of children working the fields on his family farm. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi.

Television news reports showed two boys yoked together like oxen to level a field on the family farm of India's minister for rural development, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.

The rural development minister's brother, Ragjuraj Prasad Singh, who manages the farm in Bihar state, told reporters that only children can do this sort of work.

Singh says when the fields are so soggy that tractors or oxen would get stuck, children have to be used and if these particular boys were not doing it then some other children would take their place.

One of boys, in television interviews, complained that their "hands and feet ache all the time" but they cannot quit because they need to work for food.

Newspapers Tuesday quoted the rural development minister as saying the scenes of the 10-year-old boys struggling to pull a rope tied to a tree trunk through soggy fields were "stage-managed" and blown out of proportion by his political enemies.

Opposition politicians are calling for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to fire the minister.

There has been no response, so far, from the prime minister.

An assistant answering the telephone at the rural development minister's residence on Tuesday said he was out of New Delhi and not immediately available to comment on calls for his removal from office.

The incident highlights the pervasiveness of child labor, especially in rural areas, despite laws against it. Advocacy groups estimate millions of children in India work instead of going to school.

Many critics of Prime Minister Singh's government and the economic reforms of the past two decades say that India's poorest citizens have not benefited from the nation's explosive economic growth.

The rural development minister is a top figure in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the largest political party in Bihar, which is allied with the prime minister's Congress Party. According to his official parliamentary web site, Prasad Singh holds a doctorate in mathematics and lists one of his special interests as the "struggle against exploitation."

State officials in Bihar are investigating the incident to consider whether to file charges of violating labor laws.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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