Civil society campaigns revolving around corruption and black money have not only eclipsed many fundamental issues confronting the common people of the country, but have also become so emotional that pertinent aspects of the genesis of these evils have been largely ignored. Illegal employment of children has emerged as a huge source of illicit earnings and corruption. According to the Census of India 2001, 12.7 million children were working in various sectors across the country while non-government organizations estimate the number of child labourers at 60 million, nearly 6% of the total population of India.
In spite of the ambiguity in numbers, one thing is evident: Children are employed not just because of parental poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, failure of development and education programmes, but quite essentially due to the fact that employers benefit immensely from child labour as children come across as the cheapest option, sometimes working even for free. No factory, mine, or workshop owner dares to admit employing children for a pittance or no wage at all. Their books of account will, however, show a substantial wage component factored into the production cost. This gap is the real issue. The presence of a large number of child labourers in the country indicates unabated corruption and black money.
All the work that is done by child labourers and the income thus generated goes unaccounted for. Studies show that these 60 million children work for approximately 200 days a year at an average cost of Rs 15 per child per day. This amounts to Rs 18,000 crore in one year. Now, these 60 million child labourers, when substituted with 60 million adult labourers, would earn Rs 1.38 trillion at a minimal rate of an average floor wage of Rs 115 per day per labourer for 200 days. This difference in the total earnings works out to Rs 1.2 trillion.
This straight profit of Rs 1.2 trillion is a significant loss to the economy. The employer(s) should have legally and ideally paid this sum to the worker(s), but the employer(s) instead choose to employ docile, underpaid and overworked child labourers.
Part of this black money generated by employing child labour is used to bribe law enforcement agencies and politicians. This is chronic corruption. This in turn leads to lax implementation of laws, i.e., poor or no inspection of the work premises, letting the employers go scot-free with little or no penalties at all, fuelling child labour even further. This creates a vicious circle of child labour, black money and corruption.
In response to a question in Parliament, the government admitted that only 9% of employers of child labour have so far been convicted since 2007. Their punishment was merely a fine, in spite of the provision for one to three years’ of imprisonment in the laws related to child and bonded labour. Not even a single errant employer has been jailed so far.
The influence of black money generated through child labour is visible in those areas where child labour is endemic. Despite the large scale production and even export of certain goods, these areas remain shockingly underdeveloped. In the Mirzapur-Bhadohi belt of Uttar Pradesh, where the multi-million- dollar carpet industry is concentrated, why is it that no major industrial development has been encouraged or agricultural reforms undertaken so far? Adult migration in search of livelihood to other cities is quite high as well.
Similarly, in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, a large irrigation project was surreptitiously jeopardized by local politicians a few years ago. The reason was obvious. When significant development takes place in an area, per capita income should accordingly increase and villagers should have no reason to send their children to work in the fireworks or match industries. Tirupur in Tamil Nadu is known for employing a large number of child labourers in its knitwear industry. The Noyyal river in the city has turned completely toxic because of industrial waste and effluents.
Though more in-depth research is needed to further explain how the rightful wages of workers are plundered to create black money, one thing that has been proved and established is that child labour is injurious to the health of the economy. Apart from gathering knowledge and corroborating evidence, the situation calls for devising new and efficient ways to act politically, administratively and legally against employers of child labourers in a different manner. Conventionally, such employers are prosecuted only under the provisions of labour or juvenile laws, but given the black money aspect, they must also be booked under finance and tax-related crimes as well.
Kailash Satyarthi is founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and an acclaimed child rights activist
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