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India Leads World in Number of Child Workers - 2002-05-07

Humanitarian aid agencies say India is home to the world's largest number of child laborers. Estimates of children under 14 who are at the workplace vary widely between 40 million and 100 million children. Tens of thousands work in hazardous conditions in industries such as fireworks, mining and construction. Uncounted millions of others work in what is called the unorganized sector - on farms, or in homes as domestic help.

As the United Nations this week holds a special session on the problems of children around the world, a 10 year campaign to eliminate child labor has helped raise awareness of the problem but has had little impact in reducing the vast number of children forced to work.

A group of children at a rehabiltiation center for child laborers on the outskirts of New Delhi. They animatedly sing these slogans calling for an end to child labor.

These same songs have been chanted by different groups of children for over a decade - in the streets of the Indian capital, outside parliament, for visitors at the center. But these young voices are yet to be effectively heard.

Millions of children continue to work for meager or no wages in fields, mines, factories, carpet workshops and stone quarries across, India despite laws banning child labor.

Aid agencies say most of the children are sent to work at an early age, to supplement small incomes of poor families. The worst victims are children who are brought to distant towns by agents who visit the country's impoverished regions and promise their parents a steady income. Social activists say the commitment is never fulfilled. Instead children are put to work for long hours, seven days a week, often in conditions that cause physical or emotional damage.

Fourteen-year old Shiv Kumar tells a typical story. Five months ago, social activists rescued him from a workshop weaving carpets in the North Indian town of Benares. He was brought here five years ago by an agent who picked him up from his village. Shiv Kumar was forced to weave carpets for 12-14 hours a day, and never allowed to go out. "I hated it," he says, "I used to cry to go home, one day when I wept a lot, the owner beat me severely, I got scared and began working again."

Like tens of thousands of other girls in India, 12-year-old Kiranjeet has worked as a domestic since the age of six. She collected garbage from village homes and fields in Punjab. She's much tinier than her years, and she narrates her tale without emotion.

"I used to lift garbage from other's houses. I hated it, when it rained I used to wade through the muck and cowdung. If I did not do it properly, they abused me and hit me," she explained.

Shiv Kumar and Kiranjeet will return to their families after receiving informal training in crafts like tailoring and welding at the rehabilitation center.

These two are among the lucky ones who have been absorbed by a handful of projects being run by voluntary and international agencies to help former child laborers.

Gerry Pinto is a program officer for child protection with the United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF) in New Delhi. He says there are no comprehensive studies to establish whether child labor is reducing or increasing. But he says spot studies and reports done on a small scale by non-governmental groups indicate it may be on the rise.

Social activists point out legislation passed in 1986 to ban child labor is seldom enforced. Mr. Pinto gives several reasons for this situation.

"Number one, they [the government] do not have the machinery to do a good enforcement of the legislation; number two I think children are not a lobby that gets a lot of political attention, and as a result the legislation gets manipulated by factory owners or the employers," said Mr. Pinto. "But of course that's only for the organized sector. The real issue of child labor is in the unorganized sector, the villages, including homes, which the legislation does not take care of - domestic child labor."

Social activists agree that legislation alone cannot eliminate child labor. They say education is the key that could help end the practice by keeping children in classrooms rather than at work.

Swami Agnivesh is a campaigner with a non-governmental group called the Bonded Childs Liberation Front. Like other activists, he says there need not be a link between child labor and poverty, and says wherever voluntary groups have opened schools near industries that commonly employ children, parents have opted to educate their children, rather than put them to work.

But Mr. Agnivesh points out there is a dismal lack of primary education infrastructure in the country. He says many villages do not have schools, most schools do not have good teachers. "Unless and until the government of India and the state governments, all of them, pool their resources, moral, material, mobilize and galvanize the political will necessary, open a large number of schools, provide a large number of teachers, trained, qualified, who can impart fulltime and relevant and good quality education to the chidlren who have been left out, till then I don't see any future," he said.

The government often declares its commitment to education for all, but experts say this would require a $12 billion investment over a decade. The funds may not be easy to come by. However, Mr. Pinto points out that the 10-year campaign against child labor has not been wasted.

"What has been the gain because of this attention on the issue of child labor is this growing awareness, sensitivity both on the part of the government and civil society and NGOs. People know child labor is not acceptable, as against the time say about eight [or] 10 [or] 15 years back, they said unless you do something about poverty you cant do anything about child labor. But now I think people disassociate the two things," he said.

Child rights activists in India hope the issue of child labor will receive prominence at the United Nations special session on children being held in New York, and that the young voices asking for education in place of tools will be heard.