In the list of states with the highest incidence of child labour cases, Karnataka stands in the ninth position.
Barren land in the middle of fields of Bheemanakatte village, only a few kilometers away from Kengeri, is home to a small community of construction workers and their families. It is surrounded by an array of pucca houses on one end, a lake on the other, and fields on the remaining sides.
In a makeshift homemade of iron sheets, resides Neelamma (35) with her family of four, three children, Rahul (7), Kavita (11), Kantu (13), and her husband Kashiappa (42). Neelamma and her husband work as construction workers on sites, they do not have a constant salary, on days when there is work they earn around Rs. 7000 a week and none when there is no work. She wishes for all her children to be educated but her husband does not have the same viewpoint, he feels it is a lot of money to educate three children and they do have enough money or resources to achieve that. He says they barely make ends meet with what they earn currently. Only, Kantu is studying in a government school in Magadi Road as of now, and Rahul and Kavita dropped out of school two years back.
A research study done by VB Balaraddy and G.S Venumadhava says that amongst many of the factors responsible for child labour, poverty ranks first. Most children belong to poor, landless, and semi-landless families who do not have sufficient funds to take care of their families. It is more prevalent in agriculture and allied activities and Scheduled Caste families. The social and economic backgrounds play a major role in giving rise to child labour in any country. Poverty, unemployment, ignorance, illiteracy, and low wages are root causes of child labour.
Poor families hardly survive with the minimal amenities they have, their priority becomes to run the house and feed their families than send their children to school. To earn some more money they send off their children to work, said Dr. Nagaraj, founder of 35-year-old Vidyanikhetan non-governmental organization (NGO). The contractors and agents often hire them at cost of being cheap labour that can be made to work for longer hours. Many times agents mobilize families to labour-intensive areas in India or abroad where the entire family eventually gets toiled in this work.
The drop-out rate in students has increased since the pandemic which has also impacted the number of cases in Karnataka recently. Many residents or migrant families lost their jobs in the pandemic and had issues coping with daily needs. Eventually, the children dropped out of school and are working to support their families.
Kavita works at a papad-making factory nearby with her friends where she earns around Rs. 1500 monthly. “My husband often drinks a lot at night and if I try and stop him he fights with me and hits me sometimes as well. A lot of our money goes into buying alcohol for him, often he just stays at home and does not work,” said Neelamma. She added that whatever Kavita earns does help them to survive in some ways. Kashiappa wants Kavita to get married so they have less burden of taking care of the children; however, Neelamma is adamant about educating her children. She wants to shift Kantu to a private school for better education, she said that their studies are not good in the government school he is studying in and wants better facilities for him. There is a lot of issues though with admission processes in private school, high fees and donation in some is creating a hindrance for her.
The 2011 census shows that close to 4.2 lakh children were engaged in child labour with Karnataka ranking at number 9 in the list of states with a high incidence of child labourers. However, according to a survey conducted by Karnataka’s Department of Labour, there are merely 22,882 children engaged in child labour. The worst performing districts of Karnataka are urban Bengaluru, Kalyan, Yadgir, and Koppal. According to the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment data, Karnataka has seen 143 cases of violation in 2018, only next to Uttar Pradesh (261). The total numbers of cases recorded in the country for that year were 823.
Yadgir is Nelamma’s village as well, Suraj, a social worker who works closely in the areas near Kengeri said that many families like her don’t live permanently in the city. They travel back and forth every six months. During harvesting seasons, they live in the village and do farming and during dry months they come back to the city and work on these construction sites. Due to this constant movement, it becomes very difficult for the children especially to cope with their education. This is also a major reason for such children to have high dropout rates, Suraj added. Parents do not know where to enroll them, in villages or cities.
Over 45 percent of the working children in the state are girls, and the capital city of Bangalore leads the number of working girls in Karnataka. Karnataka has nearly half a million working children between the age of 5-and 14 which is the school-going age for elementary education.
The Corporate Social Responsibility journal states that usually 80 percent of child labour in India is concentrated in rural areas; however, Karnataka has shown growth in urban sectors supporting child labour. In the last year, Child’s Rights and You (CRY) Foundation targeted 99 villages, successfully reaching out to 12,832 children between 0-and 18 years out of which 6,312 have been girl children.
Manjula (19) and Sunita (14) both work with Kavita at the same papad-making factory. Manjula has been working there for two years. She studied till the 9th standard and dropped out of school after that. She wanted to be a doctor but her mother made her do tailoring on the side so that it could help earn some money. Sunita is currently studying but works in the factory on the side as her father doesn’t work. Her mother insists on her work as it will help her earn some money to pay for books, stationery, etc.
Where are children working?
Most children end up working in construction sites, brick-line industry, agricultural lands, sericulture, shops, or domestic houses, said Dr. Nagaraj. He also spoke about the harassment that children of sex workers face who are forcible married off and tortured or are made to work in houses as domestic help. It is crucial to identify them as well and rescue them. His NGO works towards this issue and currently has around 20 girls in their shelter provided amenities all free of cost.
Domestic labour as child labour
The cases of child trafficking and child labour are very prevalent in villages. Often young children are married off to older men for money and later these children are sexually harassed and used as domestic labour in their houses, said Jayachitra, a project coordinator at Vidyaniketan’s Margasusi home in Hosur, Tamil Nadu. She spoke about Nandini (14), who was rescued last year. Nandini’s father was an alcoholic and used to have regular fights with her mother, one day during such a fight, he set her mother on fire in front of Nandini and her younger sister. Both of them were in a state of shock after seeing this. Her father was initially arrested but freed later on basis of lack of evidence.
A few months later, he remarried one of her aunts. Once the aunt came home, she fixed Nandini’s marriage to a man in the village in return for money without informing her father. She was devastated by all the incidents happening one after the other. Eventually, her aunt, husband, and everyone else involved were arrested and marriage was stated null and void. The child welfare committee got to know about the incident and advised her to stay at the Margsusi home where she could get counseling and build a better life for herself.
Jayachitra spoke about many incidents they would come across, where children were made to work as bonded labour, rag pickers, on construction sites, or elsewhere, many of them being children of sex workers were often taken for granted and sexually exploited as well.
SOP on child labour
Hiring children below the age of 14 years for any kind of work, other than in certain family-based work, is a cognizable offense and will attract a jail term of up to 2 years. Adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 years cannot be employed in any hazardous occupation. Under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, the parents of the underage child employed can be penalized as well.
Child Labour legislation, Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, (CLPRA) lists various hazardous occupations and processes to protect vulnerable children working under dangerous and life threatening conditions.
Besides CLPRA, some state-specific support mechanisms which focuses on addressing the issue of child labour include Karnataka State Plan of Action (KSPA), Karnataka State Child Labour Abolition Planning Society, District child and adolescent labour rehabilitation fund scheme etc.
There have been many steps taken by the government to help reduce child labour. One such initiative is the National Child Labour Project Schemes which were introduced in 1988 to rehabilitate working children in 12 child labor endemic districts of the country. It was a scheme to facilitate the rehabilitation of child labourers and provide aid with education and vocational training. The scheme has currently expanded to 271 schools. At present, about 6000 special schools are in operation under the NCLP scheme. To date, more than 10 lakh children have been mainstreamed into the formal education system under the Scheme.
Education is deeply interlinked to child protection including child labour. Children out of schools or dropouts exacerbates the risk of putting children at work, since drop-out of children will either be directly supporting their families, or caught in trafficking, begging, debt bondage and other indecent and exploitative work conditions.
The consecutive waves of the COVID pandemic have impacted lives of children to a great extent and in multiple ways. The closure of schools kept them away from education for more than one and a half years, and the results were horrible – there was huge loss of education and learning for children, especially in the remote rural areas. Not only have those children been away from education become more vulnerable to child labour and child marriage, said John Roberts, Regional Director – South, CRY – Child Rights and You.
Closure of 1.5 million schools due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdowns has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in India (UNICEF data). According to more recent figures from Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS 2017-18), close to 6 per cent children in the age-group of 5 – 14 years were out of school, and a considerable number of them were engaged in work.
Roberts explained how due to the pandemic, child labour among vulnerable communities has increased almost three times, mainly due to economic crises at home, family pressure and inaccessibility to online classes. Many children between 15 years and 18 years were pushed to take up jobs to supplement their family income. Child labour has increased and is further likely to intensify due to the forthcoming waves, which may again snatch away years of education, thereby causing irreversible damage to the future of children, especially the marginalized ones living under the shadows of multi-dimensional poverty.
Lack of Enforcement
The enforcement department needs to be working more actively to ensure that children are not made to work in all these places, Dr. Nagaraj said. He added that there should also be a stronger network of NGOs working on this issue. Government should be more proactively creating awareness about laws against child labour and educating the contractors and agents as well to make sure they are not hired in the first place. Only when enforcement of these laws would be strong is when people will take them seriously. Many times people get away even after cases being filed against them as fines are not hefty or often not much is done about penalizing them.
Stringent enforcement of the child labour law, the Integrated Child Protection Services Scheme is critical to safeguard children from the impact of the COVID-19, including the fall outs of the economic slowdown, Roberts added.