New Delhi: Eleven years after the Supreme Court ordered a survey of working children, the government has finally decided to go ahead with one, beginning with hazardous industries.

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) will conduct “a household survey to properly ascertain the working status of such children," said S.K. Sinha, director general of the NSSO.

A senior official in the child labour department at the ministry of labour confirmed “the ministry has decided to get a survey done, though the work is still in the initial stages."

Boy hammering metal at an ironsmith’s workshop at a village in Bishnupur, 50km south of Kolkata.

The ministry official, who requested anonymity because “a technical committee was going into the issue", said that a survey had become necessary to find out if the ministry’s various programmes to rehabilitate child labourers were working.

The flagship National Child Labour Project, which works in 250 child-labour-endemic districts, will be extended to all such districts in the 11th Plan (2007-12), the term for the government’s road map that began in April. “We don’t know, especially with so much migration, how much improvement has happened. Also, we need a family-intensive survey to properly monitor and track the children rescued from such industries," the official said.

While the ministry claims the number of working children is declining, several nonprofits working in the field are quick to point out the widespread use of children in many industries and occupations, including domestic work which was banned only a year ago.

They also accuse some state governments of not recognizing that child labour continued in industries such as mining. Under the Child Labour Act 1986, 15 occupations and 59 processes are deemed “hazardous", including the making of glass, bangles and fireworks.

In a 10 December 1996 order, the Supreme Court asked the government to conduct a survey to identify working children, withdraw them from working in hazardousoccupations and ensure their education. It implemented a fine of Rs20,000 per child paid by the employers to a welfare fund set up by the state government, and a job for an adult member of the family of the child or a donation of Rs5,000 to that fund.

Between 1997 and 2002, the government responded by spending Rs249 crore to eliminate child labour and more than doubled that amount to Rs602 crore in the next five-year period, without a proper survey so far.

The labour ministry approached the ministry of statistics and programme implementation some time ago for a survey, but the latter has been reluctant to take it up because of a severe shortage of funds as well as staff for conducting field surveys, according to a senior official in the ministry of statistics and programme implementation that houses NSSO.

The official, who didn’t want to be named, said, “even our regular work is affected by poor pay and shortage of field staff. This will be an extra burden."

The 2001 census found that the number of working children had actually grown 12%, from 11.28 million in the 1991 census to 12.67 million, even though they made up only 5% of all children in that age group. However, Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Report 2005 estimates child labour at 14% of all children.

NGOs say the missing children are employed in agriculture, home-based work, informal sector activities, and prostitution.

A 2006 Global country report by two NGOs, the Delhi-based Global March against Child Labour and the Washington-based International Centre on Child Labour and Education, said “83% of India’s poor are concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam." The report said it is not a coincidence that 84% of out-of-schoolchildren, aged 6-11, and 72% of child workers, aged 5-14, are also concentrated in these eight states.

“The child labour figures need to be matched with the figures of children who are out of school. If kids are not in school, they are definitely at work," said Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, executive secretary of the Delhi-based Haq: Centre for Child Rights, an NGO. “The government might claim to have some data for children in hazardous occupations, but our surveys show up child labour even in industries out of that list."

Ganguly, part of a fact-finding team that investigated the iron ore and granite mines in the Bellary Hospet region of Karnataka, found “a few lakh children employed by the mine owners and contractors ...with no safety equipment, no prescribed working hours or wages, susceptible to accidents, injuries and chronic mining induced health problems and severe air, dust and water pollution."

This is despite the state government’s claim that there were no children in mines.

The 2001 census estimates 87 million children out of school. Kailash Satyarthi, convener of Global March, who estimates child labour at 65 million, says “many children work in agriculture or the lowest-paying jobs of construction or road-building, along with their entire families."

He feels the census survey is not able to capture the real extent of child labour as parents always claim that the child is enrolled into a school but may either have dropped out or may be going to school irregularly.

Ganguly also says the booming economy has led to newer markets for child labour in cotton seed farming, cotton picking, bead and zariwork, along with the children of migrant labour finding they, too, must find jobs.

Campaign Against Child Labour, an umbrella organization of over 6,000 groups, argues that since the Constitution says no child under 14 can work in a factory, mine or other hazardous environments, it implies that those elder can be, and that children below 14 can be employed in non-hazardous activities.

“When there are 65 million unemployed adults, what is the need to employ children?" asks Global March’s Satyarthi. “Children are employed because they are cheap and they don’t ask for anything."