Jagan’s Story: Child Labor in India

Outside, the night was cold and its chilly winds made Jagan shudder as he lay in his thatched hut. Mosquitoes were hovering over him and seemed to suck both his blood and energy out of him. Lying quietly on the thin mattress, he reflected on his life.

Jagan Peters Reddy is an 18-year-old living in the slums of Orissa in Eastern India. He lives in a family of five, of which only he is able-bodied, the rest being either too weak or dependent on toddy, a country-made liquor, for their existence. He has no education but considers himself lucky enough to have learned his numbers and alphabet from the city-bred child for whom his mother worked.

Antony, Jagan’s brother, is twelve. A few years after his birth, the Right to Education (RTE) Act was passed in India, which required the state to provide free and compulsory elementary education to all children from poor families. It became a law a year later, in 2010. Antony thus had the privilege to go to school. It was not his choice; his father forced it upon him. Although he would rather have had his son working as a mason, he was lured by the scholarship money they would receive from the government if Antony went to school.

Jagan wanted his brother to receive an education. He feels that if Antony did well in school, he would get a good job in the reserved sector. Jagan himself had worked as a farmer with his father but was forced into masonry when the rains failed. His mother’s employer had warned her, saying that if Jagan did menial work without an education she could be arrested for child labor. However, she could do nothing but nod and carry on.

For his part, Jagan does not see much value in education. He thinks education is ‘highly overrated,’ though he knows that it might lead to long-term gains, but they are not his priority. He lives in the perils of poverty and needs money to help him and his family survive for the day. The future is too far-fetched. As the rains failed, his father had quit working and taken refuge in toddy. The teenager is now the only ray of hope left for his family.

But Jagan isn’t alone. According to an International Confederation of Free Trade Unionsreport, there are as many as 60 million children working in India’s agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates India to be the largest employer of laborers below 14, with about 70% of child labor deployed in agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Child labor is rampant in almost all sectors of the Indian economy.

UNICEF highlights poverty as the root cause of child labor. The report suggests that in impoverished parts of the world, where schools and teachers are unavailable, children have no real and meaningful alternative. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” It has been severely condemned by the Indian Constitution in the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act.

Jagan’s sister often goes to church to attend mass. The clergy supported families like hers and contributed substantially to their economic uplift. Jagan accompanies her sometimes, not for religious motives but because he managed to meet some of his friends there. Like Jagan and his family, they have converted to Christianity.

This story of Jagan’s family is the reality of many Indian households, with unemployed men at home and children working in mills, over 42% of India’s population remains under the poverty line (UNICEF). According to the latest report for 2011–12 published by the Union Ministry of Labor and Employment, over 47 million Indians are unemployed. These high rates have led to an increase in child labor. Unemployed parents and paucity of money are the main factors that have led many Indian children to join the work force. The traders see them as cheap and quick labor compared to their adult counterparts.

The recent case of Tirumalasetty Venkateswarlu, a seven-year-old who was engaged in bonded labor and was burnt, caned and ultimately killed for asking permission to go home, highlights the conditions in which such children live. According to his father, Tirumala used to work at his master’s house and business all throughout the day but was tortured and paid very little. Tirumala was forced to work as his parents had allegedly failed to repay a loan taken from the master. The master had taken Tirumala away from his family for the last few months when his parents stopped going to the farm where they had been working as bonded labor to repay the loan, according to The Deccan Chronicle.

With child labor so common in India, the question arises: Is there anything that can be done to stop it? Other than the governmental steps of banning child labor and implementing free education, a lot can be done on an individual scale. Many Indians look at such children with pity and think they are doing good by hiring them, and this factor contributes greatly to the problem. If everyone refuses to employ them, this practice can be mitigated. Awareness campaigns, legal petitions and public education can also contribute greatly towards reducing child labor.

This was first posted as an article on Child Labor for Daniel Pearl Youth News http://www.danielpearlyouthnews.org/jagans-story-child-labor-in-india/