Stopping the slide

Getting children from poor families back in school is vital for their education needs and also to reduce the scourge of child labour and child marriage

It took nearly six decades after independence for the Indian government to accept that the country’s children have a right to education, with the Right to Education Act, 2009, making it a fundamental entitlement. It took us three decades to amend the Child Labour Act — this happened in 2016 — to accept that there should be no distinction between one form of child labour and another, and that every child shall enjoy her right to education.

These and other similar enactments have been the consequence of consistent advocacy, social mobilisation and engagement with the government and the system. Given the lacunae in India’s legislative and judicial frameworks, our children have had to fight a long battle to get out of work and join schools. And they fought valiantly, paving the way for future generations of children in our country and the world over.

Shantha Sinha

Shantha Sinha is a pioneering child rights activist; founder and secretary of MV Foundation, a grassroots NGO; and former professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad

The enactments have had an impact, reducing child labour and increasing the enrolment of children in schools. The lockdowns forced upon us by the Covid pandemic have, however, fuelled a regression. Some 1.5 million schools were closed across India, affecting 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary institutions.

Countless school-going children have been pushed into the labour force as a result — some away from their families — trapped in sweatshops, bangle- and brickmaking, embroidery, textiles and the leather industry. Older boys are now getting into the labour market as headload carriers and at construction sites, while many girls have been forced into agriculture work as farm labourers.

Every minute of their lives, children in these sweatshops, worksites and farms are calculating, reckoning, planning and dreaming an escape from their drudgery and getting back to school. Girls are resisting early marriages with the hope that schools will reopen, but many have succumbed to the pressure of becoming child brides.

Globally, the progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing a previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016. A 2020 report by Unicef and the International Labour Organization reveals a significant rise in the number of Indian children in the 5-11 age bracket working as labour. This accounted for just over half of the total global figure.

Terrible work, horrible conditions

The report further stated that the number of children aged 5 to 17 doing hazardous work has risen by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016. Worse still, the report added, these kids may be working longer hours and under worsening conditions, while many more may be coerced into appalling forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.

Despite such studies, little evidence or data is available in India on the exact number of children who are child labourers. These were the children who struggled hard not to be thrust out of the education system. These were the girls who fought gender discrimination and patriarchy to be able to pursue their education. Their families, too, had begun to hope for a new future with their children in schools, just so they could break the cycle of poverty and exploitation.

The only initiative the government came up with to provide education was setting up online classes for children. This was unworkable and iniquitous. Children faced multiple inadequacies with smartphone access, connectivity, money for recharging, intelligible material, etc. Research by development economist Jean Drèze stated that just 24% of children in urban areas were studying online regularly. The corresponding figure for rural regions was a depressing 8%.

Children and their families would not have felt so hard done by if there had been even a modicum of state support to continue with the midday meal programme in schools, and if only the state had made efforts to answer the question: what of schools?

Other questions remained unanswered, too. How to reach out to children while maintaining safety and distance? How to engage with children and their education when they are not able to come to school? How to maintain the rhythm of education in some form without learning loss? How to, instead of introducing unworkable and inaccessible online classes that cause greater anxiety, reassure children about their education and keep them free of uncertainty?

The challenge during Covid was to ensure that the gains made through legislation and by the setting up of institutions and processes for the protection of children, however fragile, were not lost. India did not rise to the challenge.

A girl from a Rajasthan village collects wood for the family kitchen

There is an education emergency today. Children do not like the routine of work and the immobility brought on by the lockdowns. They do not want the aches and pains of forced labour. They want to get back to school. They want to be with their peer group. They also want to work hard to learn and gain exposure to knowledge and networks that will enable them to be part of the system. They just do not want to be marginalised like their parents were.

State schools have to welcome back children, understand their predicament and reach out to them. They have to be sensitive to the fact that children have gone through immense insecurities and a huge loss of learning. They have to conduct bridge courses to prepare them for age-appropriate classes.

Schools also have to repair and clean up their physical infrastructure and provide for water and sanitation to the returning students. Additionally, arrangements should also be made to accept all children who have dropped out of private schools due to cost or other constraints. The danger of children not coming back to schools can be overcome.

There is no one-size-fits-all remedy. We must encourage local solutions in consultation with teachers and village communities. Clearly, greater decentralisation is called for, with transfer of funds to protect children up to the village council (or urban ward) level. Children have to be identified with names and faces, not seen as mere statistics.

Much needs to be done

The government must respond to the solutions from below in terms of flexibility of school governance, distribution of work among teachers, making arrangements for children and their learning in classes, and meeting the demand for textbooks and other educational material. Committees comprising community workers, schoolteachers, self-help groups and local functionaries have to be constituted to assist local bodies in bringing relief to children.

Collaborations built on trust and equality, with NGOs and other arms of civil society, will help the government reach out to children and respond to their needs with a greater sense of urgency. Schoolteachers who have lost the habit of teaching and the routine of coming to school should be given a helping hand.

This Covid crisis has exposed the extreme unfairness and injustice in our society. It reminds us of the state’s obligation to set things right. The cost of inaction will be immense, with a whole cohort becoming illiterate and worse. Schools must be a topmost priority in this equation, because they are the key to ending child labour and child marriage.

Child labour is a scourge and it can be reduced by getting kids back to school