Indians are delighted that Kailash Satyarthi has won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating child labour. This includes Indians who have, directly or indirectly, used child labour in house holds, dhabas, and artisanal work of every kind (from weaving and matchstick-making to pottery and gem polishing). Child labour is so common that it evokes tut-tutting but not horror. The big push for boycotting carpets made by children came from foreign buyers, not Indians.
Indian laws have long banned child labour. But laws are empty gestures if divorced from economic realities. Through history, the family was an economic unit, with all members (including children) working for sheer survival. This was not just economic necessity but an essential way to teach livelihood skills to children. By hunting, gathering, farming, weaving, rearing animals, making implements and other such work, children gained skills on the job. There were no vocational schools then: parents taught all vocational skills. Different sub-castes represented different occupations, each with its own specialized skills. Working children were part and parcel of the social, economic and skill-building system.
Child labour was legal in most countries well into the 20th century. It was abolished in all states in the US only in the late 1930s, mainly to reduce unemployment during the Great Depression. The current notion that child labour is horrific and unnatural is a very recent phenomenon in Western history, arising from two developments: rising incomes and decent schools. Rising incomes made it possible for poor families to survive without making children work. And decent schools provided children with skills that greatly improved their earning capacity, enabling them to move out of their traditional caste occupations into the modern world with its huge array of new occupations. Schools also left time for merriment and creativity, which were not originally seen as contributing to skill development, but are recognized as such today.
Every poor country needs to aim for this state of affairs. But it cannot be done through unimplementable laws. It requires economic and social conditions that raise incomes and create decent schools. If people remain dirt-poor, they will require the labour of their children to survive. Besides, the poorest regions typically lack the revenues to set up decent schools.
Once incomes rise even modestly, people become keen on sending children to school to improve their livelihood prospects. But if those schools are non-existent, too far away, or teach very little, then the system fails. This has been true of most of India since Independence. Dysfunctional schools are a waste of time. Children may gain more skills working with their parents in traditional occupations than in going to useless schools.
This is a key reason for the stubborn resilience of child labour. Working with parents remains common, especially in farming and artisanal activities. In some cases children go to school in the morning and work with their parents later in the day (or at harvest time), and this is better seen as vocational training than objectionable child labour.
Satyarthi has become famous for raiding and rescuing children in commercial establishments. Now, in India many children are kidnapped and then trafficked for their labour. This is an outrage, and Satayrathi deserves full marks for taming this menace.
But in other cases parents sell their children to labour contractors, or force kids to work in factories. When the parents themselves are guilty, solutions become more difficult. Some states have set up juvenile homes to rehabilitate abandoned or abused children, but the conditions in such homes can be so bad that the children run away and seek their own free livelihoods in cities (as picturized by Mira Nair in Salaam Bombay).
Fast economic growth in India has raised wages stridently, so poverty has plummeted and parents are more willing than ever to send their children to school. But the quality of government schools is so pathetic that even poor families increasingly send their kids to fee-charging private schools rather than free government ones. Even so learning outcomes are falling. The latest report of Pratham, an NGO, shows that the proportion of class V students who can read a class II text has fallen 15% points since 2005, and the proportion of class VIII students who can do division has fallen 23% points.
What will poor people gain by sending children to such schools? No matter how many establishments Satyarthi and others raid successfully, child labour will continue till decent schools imparting real skills are available to all. Satyarthi himself says that that the raid-and-rescue approach can only be a first step. Most of the agenda still lies ahead.