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The root cause of child labour isn’t just poverty

November 15, 2007

Some readers have asked me about child labour in India. In fact the most recent query was put to me by Suburbanlife. Are the opportunities for education limited? That is what she wonders. And she probably also wonders: Why don’t the parents educate their children? Aren’t there schools in India? Are people so poor that they cannot survive if their children went to school?

Well, the truth is that many parents feel that it’s useless sending their kids to school as there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Not because there is a dearth of jobs but because the quality of education provided in municipal schools (where the majority of poor study) is abysmal. The causes for the poor quality of education range from a shortage of teachers, shortage of textbooks, high pupil-teacher ratios and poorly paid teachers. Kids in municipal schools also face more corporal punishment and girls can be sexually harassed.

Is it surprising then that many students drop out and those that stick on cannot even read and write fluently?

As it says here:

The quality of `literates’ of the school system is very low. The actual quantity of schooling that children experience and the quality of teaching they receive are extremely insufficient to any mastery of basic literacy and numeric skills.

In a community based survey of 28 cities and eight rural districts it was found that even relatively educationally advanced states faced this problem.

  • Maharashtra: Only 30 per cent of boys and girls in the age group 6-14 could read basic text fluently or do simple arithmetic.
  • Two districts of Tamil Nadu (Madurai and Villupuram): Most students lacked functional literacy and numeric skills.
  • Two districts of Madhya Pradesh: In most schools visited, few children could read their basic texts fluently. Also those who could read had little comprehension of the text.

While coaching a class of 8th grade students from municipal schools for a year as part of a social service initiative I heard the stories first hand. Listening to the woes of the students is very different from reading about them and it makes one’s heart melt. The children are beaten for trivial reasons, have to suffer absent teachers or simply teachers who don’t teach. The kids manage to pass their exams by learning by rote. Worse, the parents of these children are illiterate, and they do not understand that their kids are getting a poor education. They believe that nothing is wrong with the teaching…or the beatings!

Parents do not see the usefulness of education – for a reason
The only thing that parents understand is that their children will not get a job even if they graduate! My maid told me that she knows many jobless graduates. Education, she told me wisely, is of no use.

It’s a vicious cycle. Lack of skills translates into poverty and poverty forces the parents to place their children in municipal schools.

Frighteningly, she is right. I found these statistics which told me that the chances of being unemployed rises with education! These are 2005 figures but these are statistics from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and they say that “there are fewer unemployed among the uneducated and that too among youth in the age group of 15 to 29 years.”

More reasons for the reluctance of parents to educate their children
Our education system, even if the school is not too bad tends to impart theoretical knowledge rather than job-based training. If India is facing an employability crises it is because of this. Our education sector itself is in a crises due to years of poor governance. This Economics Times article says:

Hardly 7 percent of India’s youth (15-29 years) receive any kind of vocational training — and only 2 percent receive it formally. A degree-driven Indian society treats education as a proxy for skill levels…

This information is from a 2007 LabourReport prepared conducted by TeamLease Services. Important points from the research:

  • 53 percent of employed youth suffer some degree of skill deprivation while only 8 percent of youth are actually unemployed.
  • 57 percent of India’s youth suffer some degree of unemployability.
  • 90 percent of employment opportunities require vocational skills but 90 percent of our college/school output has bookish knowledge, creating strong supply-demand mismatch.
  • High drop out rates [57 percent by Grade 8] are caused by the low returns on education.
  • 75 percent of those who finish school make less than Rs 50,000 ( USD 1273) per year.
  • Poor quality of skills/education show up in low incomes rather than unemployment
    58 percent of graduates makes less than Rs 75,000 per year.

Girls get a worse deal
And if parents feel that it’s useless sending boys to schools one can imagine the plight of girls. After all they have to cook and clean anyway, so why should they study? There are little girls who have to look after younger siblings and do the housework right from the 4th or 5th grade. In my coaching class girls would come in exhausted and actually sleep! They would tell me horror stories (it sounded horrifying to me!) of the work they had to do as both their parents were out working. This is the reason why more girls drop out of school – not just because of parents’ attitudes but also because insensitive teachers ask them why they are studying at all, as they have to wash dishes and sweep floors anyway!

There is also the problem of sexual harassment. As it says here:

A large number of girls in India drop out of the education system around puberty. One of the main reasons parents take girls out of school is the rampant sexual harassment in, and on the way to, school.

This problem had reached a crises situation forcing the government to ban male teachers in primary schools (primary because girls do not realise they are being abused) in Delhi, but I do not know whether this ban has been enforced.

Note: This post is in honour of Childrens Day which was yesterday.

(The pictures are all by me. The first is taken on a highway, the second is of coolies at Mumbai Central station and the third is taken on the streets of Pune)

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2007 10:09 am

    nice article… i would add just one more thing…..
    polytechnic and vocational schools which actually teach students skills useful in real jobs are in a bad state.. their curriculum is outdated and they do not have teachers or equipment.

  2. oemar permalink
    November 15, 2007 10:51 am

    Govt schools are truly pathetic, drop out percentages are high and many parents are reluctant. But I have seen quite a few who literally skipped meals for their children’s education, good education to be precise. Not sure what is the percentage of these people, but I believe its fairly low, or I would have seen some change here. But parents are not the only one to blame. Look at the schools promising good education. Their prices are outrageously high! Then they have coaching centers for IITs, and coaching centers to get into those coaching centers, which conduct their own entrance test. So now I need to pay for my 2 coaching centers (which aint cheap either) and then the college. Education has become a business to be frank. Nowadays in metros, I heard of a new concept where they take kids before pre-school to prepare them for pre school. Doesnt-Make-Sense!!!

  3. Bharath permalink
    November 15, 2007 11:19 am

    Nice post Nita! Good coverage on inaccessible or inefficient education system of India.

    Another serious reason is Attitude of the people that consists indifferences & helplessness towards child labor.

  4. November 15, 2007 12:04 pm

    nicely written
    the whole education setup is a sham
    much of the the stuff taught is irrelevant in todays time and glorifies the current party in power.
    the govt schools are run without any quality assessment as u pointed out most teachers are way below standards and reservation plays a big part as does low pay.
    plus most parents of such students are uneducated themselves – ankur has a point
    most polytechnics and colleges are run by politicians who are interested in extracting big donations than the education quality

  5. November 15, 2007 12:51 pm

    Appropriate post on Childrens Day.
    Something more I want to add.
    1.Parents who have more than two children may find it diificult to send them to school because of inadequate income. Family planning is still relevant.
    2.If parents themselves are illiterate, they may not send their children to school.
    3.If mother is educated, then she will ensure her children also go to school. All female children have to be educated.
    4.The government should make education up to 12th standard as compulsory to all children and give free education in terms of school fees, text books,uniform,lunch etc.,

  6. November 15, 2007 2:41 pm

    well what are we going to do? a lot of our human capital is going down the drain…if you ask me our country is just too big…something should be done,which will make people realise…

  7. November 15, 2007 5:32 pm

    Ankur, yes even the state of the higher education in our country is something we need to worry about! Only the top 10 percent of our educational institutions are any good. It’s like we are living in two Indias. One for them and one for us!

    Oemar, there are people amongst the poor who believe in education and if they motivate their kids to study and are intelligent enough to put their kids into good schools they move up in life. We keep hearing of these stories and some spectacular ones make it to the newspapers. And if our middle class is growing it’s because of these people, but alas, they are not in the majority and most of them are exposed to things in urban India. Rural India, where the masses live continues to suffer.

    Bharath, thanks.

    Prax, you say sham, I say shame! Both words fit.

    Old Sailor, I agree that unless women are educated the family is doomed. As you pointed out she will motivate and encourage the kids to go to school and also will play a big part in understanding which school her kids can go to etc. Also I feel nutrition is very important when it comes to children’s intelligence. I have seen many women simply serve dal and white rice to their kids on a daily basis not understandign that this can retard the kids.

    I share your feeling of helplessness. I guess we can contribute in our own little way but to do more one needs to get into politics!

  8. wishtobeanon... permalink
    November 15, 2007 7:06 pm

    Thanks again for a topic that is close to my heart.
    Our country needs to invest more on children because they are the future and by invest, its not only in terms of money, but also time!

  9. November 15, 2007 7:18 pm

    Nita, this was one well researched post. I can appreciate the effort taken to compile it, but this must be second nature to you, I guess…
    A young woman in her final year MA was referred to me for helping her get a receptionist’s job. She did not know English, nor did she have experience or computer skills. The only qualification for a job seemed to be that she was not ugly.
    Unemployable is right!
    I also think the Child labor laws are a farce and a typical act of a hypocritical nation. Child labor is the only way many families bring bread home. spouting homilies of how inhuman it is to send children off to work when it is their time to play and learn hides the complete failure of successive Governments in establishing an economic and educational system that could make this anywhere close to a reality.

  10. wishtobeanon... permalink
    November 15, 2007 8:19 pm

    Hi Nita, this is not really related to the topic of child labor. Here is a link you may be interested to read

    Do we have a similar table in India that charts wages for different occupations? Do we have a ‘minimum wage’ rule?

    Making manual labor (like laying of roads, construction, cleaning etc.) more high paying, respectable, safe and ‘cool’ would probably inspire unemployed youths and the poor alike to take it up.

  11. November 15, 2007 9:49 pm

    wishtobeanon, yes there are minimum wages, not just for manual labourers but also for teachers. What happens is that employers break the rules particularly in small private firms. there are so many people available that no one complains. For example there are reports of teachers being paid the min wage on paper and having to ‘return’ the money to the school! this happens in small private school who are also to follow the min wage rule. and happens to sweepers too. for example the sweepers in our colony are hired on contract at a min wage (which is rs 4000/- for 8 hours if I am not mistaken) but they have to pay back one third to the contracter! and as for increasing the wages, it has to happen all over. for example if a teacher is paid Rs 6000/-, a labourer cannot be paid that much. wages have to rise from the bottom to the top. even i wish that the disparity between different kinds of jobs wasn’t so much and perhaps we can emulate japan where the difference between the rich and the poor is far less than in other countries. I have a written a post on it here. It discusses the gap between the rich and the poor in different countries.

    Rdoc, thanks.
    I like to get to the bottom of things…but it’s hard work nonetheless. and more than the research it’s the getting a single clear train of thought running through the piece. In the sense getting my voice to speak and tell you something with facts to back it up.

  12. November 16, 2007 12:08 am

    I’d have loved to read your recommendations to this issue too. Reforming education sector is one step. I read somewhere that the new NCERT textbooks are pointing towards the right direction. Maybe this will get kids more interested in school, they will be able to think independently etc.

    Highschool education in Canada is very interesting. It’s almost completely public. The student can choose vocational subjects right from grade 8th, so by the end of high school (12th) the child can operate machines, program computers or do a number of other skilled things. Ofcourse there is lot of money to fund all this.

  13. November 16, 2007 7:45 am


    A complete overhaul of the system is required but one has to be in the system to change it. Hopefully some young guns reading this might do their bit.
    Presently in India there are NGO’s working towards helping slum children learn better (I was part of such a program for a while) and that is the main thing that people outside the system can do. Support the children. Either financially or educationally

  14. November 16, 2007 3:42 pm

    This is a subject close to my heart. There is another scary aspect of child labour. See that here:

  15. November 16, 2007 9:17 pm

    There are many groups like Asha etc. that are working to change the situation. The best we can do is do what we can – and realize that it takes time to change things in this world.

  16. axinia permalink
    November 16, 2007 10:12 pm

    Nita, one short note on illiteration and education problems.
    Austira, the country I reside and enjoy being to has the following rates:

    Illiterates – 300.000 (out of 8. Mio Population)
    high education – 6 %

    Do you think it is a ggod sign for so called advanced European country???

  17. November 17, 2007 11:31 am

    Amit, Poonam, Axinia, thanks.
    Axinia, the number of illiterates if they are 3 lakhs is pretty high. How come? The higher education figures do not surprise me though…and no it isn’t a good sign at all. that is why highly educated people from outside are coming in.

  18. November 23, 2007 2:59 am

    Nita – I appreciate the hard work you made in keeping this post unified and relevant to the main concerns. Also the links you have provided made for gathering of relevant details possible.
    The state of education is directly mirroring problems a society may be encountering in other areas of its operations. Things tend to go hand in hand. A modern India is struggling with ages old traditional attitudes which hamper the adjustment of your society in this time of massive change. If Agriculture is such an important aspect of economics for your culture, and, let’s face it – it is agriculture which will keep your huge population alive and productive – would it not make sense for education philosophies to explore the learning needs of your population to streamline production, preservation, dissemination of food products? I see this as a huge neglect in Canadian education. Children here learn about history, maths, language and writing, sciences, and the areas of technological learning are underemphasized. Every middle class parent encourages his/her children to study at university, learning in the trades is still undervalued here. In BC we have a shortage of productive workers in the resource industries – and we transport all our resources to other areas of the world wher people there can manufacture products from them. This is incredibly bad use of our own human potential. Increasingly we depend for our food to be imported from other geographic areas – our own people seem to have very little appreciation for the labour that is necessary to produce food we consume so freely. One of your commenters, rambodoc, stated that one of his acquaintances in studies for an MA was applying for a receptionist’s job. I know MAs and PHDs who work at Starbucks making lattes. I think the world over, here as elsewhere, we tend to have a false idea of what comprises education. There are many skill sets in the world, to be learned, researched and refined – and all have value. For education system to work well, fundamental questions of why we educate and what for and how have to be thoroughly examined, debated and agreed upon. This is a dunting requirement.

  19. November 23, 2007 11:06 pm


    Thanks for sharing that and for your informative comment. I guess every nation has it’s own set of problems relating to education..and I hear one of the problems today in the west is that less people are going on to college…

  20. Tabassum permalink
    November 26, 2007 1:38 pm

    i appreciate ur effort on this problem of child labour. but did anyone think wat will happen if child labour is stopped ,as u hav mentioned wats d plight of our country’s educational system is “if child labour is removed ,we could findlots of young vagabounds,beggers & thieves everywhere” wat do u think ab’t this

  21. November 26, 2007 2:02 pm


    Well, if child labour is strictly banned then these youngsters will work at home and in any case I do not think that the government can ever strictly stop child labour. About beggars, there are parents who force their children to beg, and for them this is ‘work’ as money is earned. However i do not think that by being strict about child labour will lead to an increase in crime because I do not think that child labour can be stopped unless the root of the problem is tackled first…which is education for all. So in a way your question is hypothetical…if the government does actually stop child labour I assume they will force the kids to go to school as well so you will not find an increase in crime. In fact I feel our police force is far more successful at catching thieves than preventing child labour.

  22. Isha permalink
    February 6, 2008 5:31 am

    does child labor or poverty lead to illiteracy (when children can’t read or write)?

  23. February 6, 2008 9:31 am

    It’s a vicious circle Isha. It starts with illiteracy and poverty ends with illiteracy.

  24. Javaid Ahmed permalink
    March 24, 2008 1:45 pm

    I personally worked on prevention & elimination of child labor from coal mine industry. I observed & it come to my experience that the root cause of child labor lies in poverty & back wardness of any region. Lack of awarness & scarcity of job oppertunities etc feed child labor.

    • December 11, 2010 1:02 pm

      poverty is a root cause of every social evil or problem

  25. April 7, 2008 4:58 pm

    United Nations-MDG..this might interest you…
    One of the darkest characteristics of poverty is that is seems to prey on the vulnerable and defenseless. In low-income countries, one out of every 10 children dies before the age of five. In wealthier nations, this number is only one out of 143.
    I think its high time we all individually or collectively Stand Up and Speak Out for our rights

    This will help all you people on this blog to do something along with the United Nations in your locality.
    Check this

  26. shahbaz ahmad khan permalink
    January 5, 2009 2:33 am

    i really appreciate the work that u have done. im doing M.B.A and im doing a research on child labor. this information helps me alot in my research. my basic research object is to find out the root causes of child labor in Pakistan and its neighbour countries. so i must say that u did a good job.

    • roojaa permalink
      January 12, 2010 3:45 am

      hi am doing a work on causes of child labor and it helps me much

  27. sebastian permalink
    March 26, 2009 11:32 pm

    Hi im writting from Spain and just wanted to say that this is a very good article and that you are a very talented writter. As a matter of fact im doing a paper on this issue and reading from a local’s perspective has helped me alot understand better the issue. If you know of any more information related to this topic, i would love to see it.

  28. siddik sayyed permalink
    December 9, 2010 8:01 pm

    quite fine, most probably it happens so , n there r handfull of peoples who are leading a better life due to education

  29. Manasa Konidini permalink
    March 5, 2011 1:11 pm

    I m studying PGDM. Recently I started research paper on “CHILD LABOR” this article helped me a lot for my research.
    This is a very nice article.
    The Main causes of Child Labor are
    1.The poverty of the families.
    2.The deficiencies of the governmental school system.
    3.Social norms and attitudes having their origin in the caste structure.

    • mario kobaia permalink
      April 28, 2011 2:32 am

      what are the causes of child labor?

  30. Sobia Rana permalink
    April 25, 2012 4:27 pm

    HI DEAR,
    excellent job, i am also doing the research work on “child labor” in DADU,SINDH PAKISTAN and your article has suppoted, guided and also helped me in my work.


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