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Nobel Winner Satyarthi’s Ardha Satya

Author: Seetha
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: October 11, 2014
URL: http://swarajyamag.com/economy/nobel-winner-satyarthis-ardha-satya-2/

Sorry Mr Satyarthi, you are wrong. Poverty is the root cause of child labour

In his first set of interviews after winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with Malala Yousafzai, child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi has claimed that poverty is not the cause of child labour; it was actually the other way around – child labour causes poverty.

This is not a giddy-headed off-the-cuff statement made in the excitement of winning the world’s most prestigious award. This is a considered position Satyarthi has held for a long time now. But it needs to be questioned now, because in India the conferring of any foreign award means that a person’s words will go unchallenged. And this is the Nobel, no less, so there is danger that this statement will become gospel truth.

At one level, it’s easy to understand why Satyarthi takes this position. Saying that poverty is the root cause of child labour could lead to a resigned acceptance of the situation – what can anyone do when there is so much poverty around? And since poverty will always be around, the problem of child labour will be shrugged off as an inevitable irritant. Reversing the argument confronts this complacency (as it should be) and questions any kind of justification of child labour.

But it is one thing to put this statement out as a rhetorical device, quite another to let it become an accepted fact. If, as Satyarthi asserts, accepting the line that poverty drives child labour will dilute the fight against the scourge, then refusing to acknowledge this will also make the fight completely meaningless.

What else but benumbing poverty could push people into putting their child to work, often in inhuman conditions? Yes, there is the issue of illiteracy and lack of awareness, especially about the importance of education, but underlying all this is the economic circumstances of the family.

That is why laws like the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (CLP&R), 1986 and the Right to Education Act (which insists that children must be sent to school and is often touted as a powerful instrument against child labour) and policing have made only minor dents in the problem. (There are several loopholes in the CLP&R Act, but that is another huge issue altogether).

That is why there is a fairly high incidence of children rescued in anti-child labour drives relapsing into child labour situations. This is only partly because there are no schools available for them to go to (sending rescued children to school is part of the rehabilitation effort) or that the quality of education in government schools is pathetic. Most parents of child workers are illiterate and uneducated, they will not be able to judge the quality of education. They send their children back to work because they need the money. Anti-child labour activists often encounter hostility from parents themselves and confess that they are a big hindrance to addressing the problem.

Satyarthi is right that child labour perpetuates poverty and illiteracy. When parents see the economic value of child labour being more than the economic value of education, they will send children to work instead of school. So the vicious cycle never ends. But parents will understand the economic value of education only when they themselves are in jobs and their circumstances improve. Parents are not genetically programmed to exploit their children.

Between 1991 and 2001, child labour (children in the 5-14 years age group) actually increased – from 11.2 million to 12.6 million. But in 2011, the numbers fell drastically to 4.3 million. These are official Census figures and could be understating the problem hugely (unofficial estimates say India has 60 million child labourers). Even keeping that caveat in mind, could this drastic fall between 2001 and 2011 not have anything at all to do with the decade seeing several years of high growth and a significant reduction in poverty?

Poverty fell by 0.74 percentage points between 1993-94 and 2004-05 and by 2.18 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to the Suresh Tendulkar formula. The absolute number of poor has also been falling since 2004-05. Awareness and vigilance has increased and policing may have improved during this period as well, but can we honestly say there is no link at all between all these numbers?

Does this mean that growth and poverty reduction alone will eliminate, or drastically reduce, child labour? Obviously not. The number of children who are working, especially in hazardous occupations, is still uncomfortably large. In a paper, Why does child labour persist with declining poverty, published by the National Centre for Econometric Research, Australia, Jayant Sarkar and Dipanwita Sarkar note the persistence of child labour in many developing countries despite rising income. There are far too many inter-related issues, especially relating to education and health, which need to be tackled and bans, they argue, can sometimes prove counterproductive.

But the bedrock of all this has to be high growth – growth that generates jobs for adults in a family, that brings down poverty further, that generates resources for the government to finance physical and social infrastructure.

Once he is done with congratulating Satyarthi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to get down to putting the economy back in shape, making a decisive break from the UPA style policies that his government has not entirely jettisoned. Certainly, legislative and policing measures must continue and loopholes plugged. But without addressing the basic economic causes of child labour – grinding poverty and unemployment–these will not be successful.
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