NEW DELHI: India’s unemployment struggles are well-documented but concerns on job numbers are merely one aspect of India’s labour challenge. Another, perhaps even more worrying, challenge is child labour. According to the latest available census (2011), there were 10.1 million child workers under the age of 14—with significant disparities across states.

Mint’s district analysis of census data suggests that while children are employed everywhere across India, some states have significantly higher child employment rates and the nature of employment is changing drastically. Across India in 2011, 3.9% of children under the age of 14 were engaged in child labour. The proportion was, however, much higher in some states such as Nagaland (13.2 %), Himachal Pradesh (10.3%) and Sikkim (8.5%).

Nationally, the percentage of working children fell from 5% in 2001 to 3.9% in 2011 but the bigger change occurred in the nature of employment. Across the world, child labour tends to be concentrated on farms—and this is true to an extent in India where 60% of working children are engaged in agriculture-related activities. But, in India, the number of child farmers has come down as an increasing number of children are doing non-farm work. Between 2001 and 2011, the share of children engaged in non-farm work doubled to 40%.

Unsurprisingly, non-farm child labour is highest in the large cities but also prevalent in agricultural states such as Punjab and Haryana. West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are other states where a significant portion of children are employed in non-farm work. Between 2001 and 2011, the greatest increase in non-farm child labour happened in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the region around Delhi, and Jammu and Kashmir.

Within non-farm jobs, children are increasingly working in the services sector. Services, which covers jobs in domestic work, hospitality and entertainment, is now the biggest non-farm employer of children with 30% of all non-farm child workers, followed by manufacturing (6%) and construction (2%). This is a change from 2001—when services and manufacturing both had near equal share of children workers.

According to UNICEF, child labour in India has merely shifted from factories to employee homes and children are still engaged in harmful industries such as bidi production and fireworks production .

This shift to informal home-based sectors makes it harder to detect child labour.

The Union government seeks to address this through a range of measures. For instance in 2016, it raised the minimum age for work to 14 years but retained caveats that allowed younger children from underprivileged families to work in family-based enterprises.

Activists believe these definitions are prone to exploitation with employers hiring child workers under the guise of being related to them and ensuring child labour is prevalent across the country.

The Child Labour Act also allows states to crack down on child labour—but is used to mixed effect across the country. From 2015 to 2017, a total of 4,466 prosecutions were launched across India under the Act.

Using the number of prosecutions as a measure of how seriously the state intends to tackle child labour, we can see how states are performing given their level of child employment. For instance, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and West Bengal launched relatively fewer prosecutions despite their larger proportions of child labour .

The government also seeks to address child labour through the National Child Labour Project which identifies and rehabilitates child workers. In 2017-18, around 50,000 child workers were rescued or rehabilitated from child labour—but it is still a small fraction of the overall child labour force.

Child labour, though, is not a problem unique to India. According to data from the World Bank, there are 168 million children employed across the world.

India contributes 6% of these workers, but in terms of proportion, it has the lowest rates of child labour in South Asia. Nepal, for instance, has a 42% child labour rate—the highest in the region. Globally, the International Labour Organization and UNICEF recommend a multi-pronged strategy to tackle child employment that involves better enforcement of laws, increasing awareness and strengthening education systems—India will need to do the same.