Indian Child Labor

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Indian Child Labor


By: Sophie Elbaz

Date: December 1990

Source: © Sophie Elbaz/Sygma/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Sophie Elbaz is a French photographer living in Marseilles, France. Throughout her professional career, Elbaz has held numerous exhibitions of her photographs. Most of these photographs depict events and lives of people, especially women and children the world over. According to Elbaz, her photographs symbolize human determination and courage.


Child labor is a pervasive problem in most of the developing countries. Among these countries, India has a high number of child workers. Various organizations in the past have emphasized the prevalence of child labor in India. The United Nations reported that in 1996, India had at least fifty million children involved in labor work. As of the early 2000s, reports published by Human Rights Watch—a non-profit human rights organization—estimated the number of child workers in the range of sixty to 115 million.

Out of these, at least fifteen million are bonded laborers. Bonded laborers are those who work for meager wages, usually with the purpose of paying off a debt. This debt is often incurred as a result of a loan taken by the child's parents or guardians. Moreover, there has been a significant increase in child labor in the last decade. A census report published by Global March Against Child Labor showed that the magnitude of child labor has increased from 11.59 million in 1991, to 12.66 million in 2001. Some human rights organizations claim that the figure is higher, as child workers in the domestic and agriculture sector have not been covered in this census.

These reports also show that bonded child laborers, as young as eleven, often work for sixteen hours a day. Moreover, some are expected to work every day of the year. There are many reasons for such bonded child labor. These include poverty, weak implementation of child labor prevention laws, lack of alternative small-scale loans for poor people in the rural and urban areas, absence of a concerted social welfare scheme to safeguard against hunger and illness, and an imbalanced educational system especially in the rural regions. Further, fewer employment opportunities, corruption and apathy of government officials, caste-based discrimination, and indifference of the society forces the children to start working at an early age.

Over the years, various human rights organizations, within and outside India, have criticized the role of the Indian government in not being able to stop child labor. As mentioned above, numerous reports highlighting the rise of child labor in India have been published. The primary source is a photograph taken by Sophie Elbaz in December 1990, depicting an eleven-year-old orphaned child working in a stone mine in Gurgaon, northern India, to meet his daily needs.



See primary source image.


Child labor is a socio-economic problem that is predominantly rooted in poverty. In its report, the Global March against Child Labor found that seventy percent of respondents—mainly parents of child laborers—cited poverty as the main cause of child labor in India. Studies also showed that illiteracy and unemployment are two more factors that are responsible for this growing scourge.

In rural India, there is an increasing trend of child labor as most of the people there depend on agriculture as the only source of livelihood. With no proper government schemes, especially on finance, the farmers keep on seeking loans from landlords who provide it at high interest rates. Many farmers fail to repay these loans and eventually pass it on to their children. As a result, these children have no alternative but to take up labor at a very young age. It deprives them of even the sparse educational opportunities available in their villages. According to the 2001 Census that was released in August 2005, out of 226 million children aged between six and fourteen years, 65.3 million children—thirty percent approximately—did not attend the school at all. The proportion of out-of-school boys was twenty five percent compared to thirty three percent for girls.

A nation's progress depends on the education of its younger generation. However, lack of education has diminished the job prospects of these children, even as the number of child labor keeps on escalating every year.

In order to improve the situation, the Indian government has, in the last decade, created some awareness among the masses and also initiated several steps mostly under the first Act on child labor—Enactment of Children Pledging of Labor—framed in February 1933. Since then, there have been nine different legislations relating to child labor. The Child Labor Act, 1986, seeks to ban employment of children working in certain hazardous occupations and also regulates the work of children in certain other industries.

The government has set up committees under the Ministries of Rural Development, Urban Affairs and Employment, Human Resources Development—Department of Education—Social Justice and Empowerment and the Department of Women and Child Development for the betterment of child laborers. Several benefits have been listed for the parents and family members of the children working under the poverty eradication and employment generation programs. Another program, the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS), perhaps, the single largest program in the world is focused on pregnant mothers and children in terms of immunization, nutrition and pre-primary early childhood education. Approximately 600,000 schools have been set up with a purpose of providing free and compulsory primary education irrespective of caste, creed, and sex. The National Literacy Mission has been launched since 1988 to remove parental illiteracy.

Besides, projects to rehabilitate children working in hazardous industries like fireworks, glass, bangle making, gem cutting, and so on were started following the announcement of National Child Labor Policy of 1987. In 1994, then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao developed initiatives for taking out two million children of 'hazardous employment'. Hazardous employment, as the name suggests, indicates employment conditions that are unsafe for children. This figure—though in millions—encompasses only up to 3.3 percent of the nation's child laborers.

The Indian legal system prohibits bonded child labor and is a punishable crime with severe penalties. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India gave directions for immediate identification of children in hazardous occupations and their subsequent rehabilitation, including providing appropriate education to the released children. At the international level, India is signatory to the treaties framed under the International Labor Organization that guarantee rights of children. These treaties were drafted at the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1966, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989.

The figures of child labor in India vary from organization to organization due to the methods adopted and the period selected for such surveys. However, the scourge of child labor continues unabated.



Lakshmidhar Mishra. Child Labor in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

World Bank. India: Achievements and Challenges in Reducing Poverty. Geneva: World Bank Publications, June 1997.

Web sites

BBC News. "India's child labour laws failing." August 20, 2002. 〈〉(accessed April 27, 2006).

BBC News. "India 'losing' child-labour battle." May 6, 2002. 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

Congressional Record. "The Exploitation of Child Labor in India." July 25, 1995. 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

Embassy of India, Washington, D.C. "Child Labor and India." 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

Human Rights Watch. "The Small Hands of Slavery." September 1996. 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

North American Secretariat on Child Labor and Education. "Review of Child Labour, Education and Poverty Agenda." 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

UNICEF. "Child Protection: The Picture in India." 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

World Bank. "Child Labor: Issues, Causes and Interventions." 〈〉 (accessed April 27, 2006).

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Indian Child Labor

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