Myron weiner

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The Child and the State in India
India has the largest number of non-school going working children in the world. Why has the government not removed them from the labour force and required that they attend school, as have the governments of all developed and many developing countries? To answer this question, this major comparative study first looks at why and when other states have intervened to protect children against parents and employers. By examining Europe in the nineteenth century, the United States, Japan, and a number of developing countries, Weiner rejects the argument that children were removed from the labour force only when the incomes of the poor rose and employers needed a more skilled labour force.

Turning to India, the author shows that its policies arise from fundamental beliefs, embedded in the culture, rather than from economic conditions. Identifying the specific values that elsewhere led educators, social activists, religious leaders, trade-unionists, military officers, and government bureaucrats to make education compulsory and to end child labour; he explains why similar groups in India do not play the same role.

myron weiner is Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Director of the Centre for International Studies there. He is the author of several studies of Indian politics and society.


without financial support from the Smithsonian Institution and the Ford Foundation in New Delhi this study would not have been possible. I am most grateful to them.

My grateful thanks also to those who read and commented on an ear­lier draft of this manuscript: Rukhun Advani, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Neera Burra, S. N. Eisenstadt, Meena Gupta, Ronald Herring, Ramesh Kanbargi, Atul Kohli, Dharma Kumar, R. Sudarshan, Michael Tharakan, Lu-cian W. Pye, Saul J. Weiner, Sheila L. Weiner, and Martha Zuber.

I also wish to acknowledge the assistance of Smitu Kothari, Usha S. Naidu, C. A. Perumal, Prayag Mehta, John Kurrien, Chitra Naik, P. Lakshmanan, Girija Eswaran, Nasir Tyabji, Kartikeya Sarabhai, T. S. Papola, Susan Shirk, P. M. Shah, William Cousins, Assefa Bequele, K. Satyanaryana, Swarna Jayaweera, C. R. de Silva, V. R- Gopinathan Nair, Devaki Jain, Pai Panandikar, Chanchal Sarkar, Pran Chopra, G. V. Mo-han, Suma Chitnis, Bhabani Sen Gupta, Lincoln Chen, Harbans Singh, Paul Chowdhuri, Andrea Menefee Singh, B. g. Deshmukh, Ela Bhatt, Jayshree Mehta, S. M. Mukherjee, Ram Joshi, V. G, Kulkarni, C. T. Kurien, G.V.K. Rao, Bidyut Sarkar, Lakshmi Jain, K. G. Rastogi, B. B. Patel, V. K. Kulkarni, Leela Gulati, Pushpati John, J. N. Rao, A. Pad-manaban, Surajit Sinha, K. N. George, Michael Hsiao, S. Ramanathan, James Melchior, Anand Swarup, Anil Bordia, Sunand Bhattacharjee, Tom Kessinger, Nathan Glazer, Robert Levine, Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri, Lois Malone, and Beth Datskovsky. I am also indebted to numerous Indian government officials in the state and central ministries of education and labor and to many social activists, educators, trade unionists, and employers who consented to be interviewed.

For research assistance I thank Richard Deeg, Jennifer Nupp, Richard Locke, Narendra Subramanian, and Ketaki Bhagwati.

Numerous institutions permitted me to use their library, make use of their records, and in other ways facilitate my research. These include the International Labour Organization in Geneva and unesco in Paris, which provided me with materials for the comparative portions of this study. I also benefited from materials and assistance provided by the Interna­tional Commission of Jurists (Geneva), the World Health Organization (Geneva), unicef (New York), the Indian Institute of Education (Pune), Defense of Children International (Geneva), the United Nations Center of Human Rights (Geneva), the Indian Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Education (New Delhi), the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Bombay), the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (New Delhi), the Ministry of Small Scale and Cottage Industries (New Delhi), the International Labour Organization (New Delhi), the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute (Ahmedabad), the Nehru Foundation for Development (Ahmedabad), the Sardar Patel Institute (Ahmedabad), the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (New Delhi), the Indian Council of Social Science Research (New Delhi), the Homi Bhabha Science Education Center (Bombay), the Nana Chowk Municipal School (Bombay), the Ahmedabad Science Center, chetna (Ahmedabad), the Center for Development Studies (Madras), the Madras Institute of Development Studies, the Madras Institute of Management, the Administrative Staff College (Hyderabad), the Institute for Social and Economic Change (Bangalore), the Giri Institute of Social Sciences (Lucknow), the Indian Tea Board (Calcutta), and the Indian Cultural De­velopment Centre (Madras).

Finally, I wish to thank those who listened to and commented upon my presentations at seminars in New Delhi at the Center for Policy Re­search, the India International Centre, and the Ford Foundation; in Pune at the Indian Institute of Education; in Madras at the Madras Insti­tute for Development Studies; and in Cambridge at the Boston University-Harvard-MlT South Asia seminar and the mit Center for Interna­tional Studies MacArthur Seminar on Institutional Perspectives on the State and Third World Development.

January 1990

The Argument

The Problem Explained

the governments of all developed countries and many developing coun­tries have removed children from the labor force and required that they attend school. They believe that employers should not be permitted to employ child labor and that parents, no matter how poor, should not be allowed to keep their children out of school. Modern states regard edu­cation as a legal duty, not merely a right: parents are required to send their children to school, children are required to attend school, and the state is obligated to enforce compulsory education. Compulsory primary education is the policy instrument by which the state effectively removes children from the labor force. The state thus stands as the ultimate guardian of children, protecting them against both parents and would-be employers.

This is not the view held in India. Primary education in India is not compulsory, nor is child labor illegal. The result is that less than half of India’s children between ages six and fourteen—82.2 million are not in school. They stay at home to care for cattle, tend younger children, col­lect firewood, and work in the fields. They find employment in cottage industries, tea stalls, restaurants, or as household workers in middle-class homes. They become prostitutes or live as street children, begging or picking rags and bottles from trash for resale. Many are bonded laborers, tending cattle and working as agricultural laborers for local landowners. “The government,” a senior education official told me, “should not force poor parents to send their children to school when it cannot provide em­ployment for all adults. Children are an economic asset to the poor. The income they bring in and the work they do may be small, but parents close to subsistence need their help.”

Most children who start school drop out. Of those who enter first grade, only four out of ten complete four years of school. Depending upon how one defines “work” (employment for wages, or full-time work whether or not for wages), child laborers in India number from 13.6 million to 44 million, or more.

Indian law prohibits the employment of children in factories, but not in cottage industries, family households, restaurants, or in agriculture.

Indeed, government officials do not regard the employment of children in cottage industries as child labor, though working conditions in these shops are often inferior to those of the large factories. Said the director of the Ministry of Labour: “In Sivakasi [the site of India’s match and fire­cracker industries where 45,000 children are employed], we understand that child labour in factories has gone down. They have in fact gone to the smaller units, the cottage type small units, which are not covered by the Factories Act. This is bound to happen. This is a positive sign. It is a move towards reduction and abolishment of child labour.”

India is a significant exception to the global trend toward the removal of children from the labor force and the establishment of compulsory, universal primary-school education. Poverty has not prevented govern­ments of other developing countries from expanding mass education or making primary education compulsory. Many countries of Africa with in­come levels lower than India have expanded mass education with im­pressive increases in literacy. Botswana, Cameroons, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Libya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have literacy rates in the 50 percent to 75 percent range. China, which had an illiteracy rate comparable to that of India forty years ago, now has half the illiteracy rate of India. South Korea and Taiwan, both poor countries with high illiteracy rates a generation ago, moved toward universal and compulsory education while their per capita incomes were close to that of India, Adult literacy rates in both countries are now over 90 percent. In contrast, India’s adult literacy rate in 1981 was 40.8 percent. Between 1961 and 1981 the total number of adult illiterates in India increased by 5 million per year, from 333 million to 437 million. India is the largest single producer of the world’s illiterates.

The historical evidence delinking mass education from the level of na­tional and per capita income is also persuasive. In many countries the diffusion of mass literacy preceded the Industrial Revolution, and governments often introduced compulsory education when levels of poverty were high: German municipalities in 1524; Massachusetts in 1647; Scotland, Austria, and Sweden in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Japan in 1872; newly independent South Korea and Taiwan shortly after the World War II.

This study attempts to provide an explanation for why India’s policies toward children in education and employment are different from those of so many other countries. Why is the Indian state unable—or unwilling—to deal with the high and increasing illiteracy, low school enrollments, high dropout rates, and rampant child labor? Why did government commissions reviewing child labor and education policies as recently as 1985-1986 not call for compulsory education or for legislation to abolish child labor? How are we to understand these policies in a country whose governing elites profess to be socialist and many of whose bureaucrats, politicians, and intellectuals are advocates of an intrusive state? Why has the state not taken legislative action when the Indian Constitution calls for a ban on child labor and for compulsory primary-school education, posi­tions frequently reiterated in government reports as a long-term objective? Between official rhetoric and policy there is a vast gap, and it is puzzling why the Indian government does not do what it says it wants to do.

The central proposition of this study is that India’s low per capita income and economic situation is less relevant as an explanation than the belief systems of the state bureaucracy, a set of beliefs that are widely shared by educators, social activists, trade unionists, academic researchers, and, more broadly, by members of the Indian middle class. These beliefs are held by those outside as well as those within government, by observant Hindus and by those who regard themselves as secular, and by leftists as well as by centrists and rightists.

At the core of these beliefs are the Indian view of the social order, notions concerning the respective roles of upper and lower social strata, the role of education as a means of maintaining differentiations among social classes, and concerns that “excessive” and “inappropriate” education for the poor would disrupt existing social arrangements.

Indians reject compulsory education, arguing that primary’ schools do not properly train the children of the poor to work, that the children of the poor should work rather than attend schools that prepare them for “service” or white-collar occupations, that the education of the poor would lead to increased unemployment and social and political disorder, that the children of the lower classes should learn to work with their hands rather than with their heads (skills more readily acquired by early entry into the labor force than by attending schools), that school dropouts and child labor are a consequence, not a cause, of poverty, and that parents, not the state, should be the ultimate guardians of children. Rhetoric notwithstanding, India’s policy makers have not regarded mass education as essential to India’s modernization. They have instead put resources into elite government schools, state-aided private schools, and higher education in an effort to create an educated class that is equal to educated classes in the West and that is capable of creating and managing a modern enclave economy.

The Indian position rests on deeply held beliefs that there is a division between people who work with their minds and rule and people who work with their hands and are ruled, and that education should reinforce rather than break down this division. These beliefs are closely tied to religious notions and to the premises that underlie India’s hierarchical caste system. It is not merely that India’s social organization is inegalitarian and that caste implies a system of social ranking, neither of which is unique to India, What is distinctive is a particular kind of social mobility, the mobility of groups rather than individuals. While there is considerable group mobility in India, powerful forces of both institutions and beliefs resist changes in group status. Even those who profess to be secular and who reject the caste system are imbued with values of status that are deeply imbedded in Indian culture. One does not readily escape from the core values of one’s society. In much of the world, religious institutions and beliefs (including secular beliefs derived from religion) played a role in the diffusion of mass education and in state intervention, but in India Hinduism (and Islam as well) has not been a force for mass educa­tion. While in many countries theologies or secular ideologies have stood for a system of national education aimed at social equality, in India education has been largely an instrument for differentiation by separating children according to social class. For this reason, those who control the education system are remarkably indifferent to the low enrollment and high dropout rate among the lowest social classes. The result is one of the highest rates of child labor in the world, one of the lowest rates in school attendance, and a literacy rate that has fallen behind most of the third world.

These views are not readily apparent in official statements of government policy or in the speeches of public officials, but through a close scrutiny of official documents and through extensive interviews with officials we can discover these beliefs. Policies and programs that otherwise appear irrational, hypocritical, or inefficient can be rendered comprehensible. To understand these policies we must first identify the beliefs and premises upon which they are based. By comparing Indian policies toward child labor and compulsory education with those of other countries we can demonstrate that a study of belief systems provides us with a more consistent, theoretically satisfactory, and empirically based expla­nation for what we observe than do other explanations. And to demonstrate that policies are constrained neither by resources nor merely by pressures from affected interest groups. We shall show how widely these beliefs are held in Indian society. The explanation for policy lies not in interest group politics nor state interests, but in the beliefs and values of elites that shape their political actions, that is, in India’s political culture.
The Rhetoric

Since independence the government of India, every commission ap­pointed by the government, the ruling Congress party, all opposition parties, and all state governments have advocated ending child labor and establishing compulsory, universal, primary education for all children up to the age of fourteen. This commitment dates to the turn of the century when Gopal Krishna Gokhale, then president of the Indian National Con­gress, unsuccessfully urged the British to establish free and compulsory elementary education. In the 1930s provincial governments under the control of the Indian National Congress passed legislation authorizing lo­cal bodies to introduce compulsory education. The Indian Constitution of 1950 declared that “the State’ shall endeavor to provide, within a pe­riod of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.” The goal was reconfirmed by successive central governments, by the Planning Commission, Parliament, and state governments. What are called compulsory primary education acts were passed by most of the state governments, while the number of primary schools leaped from 210,000 in 1950 to 529,000 by 1986.

Legislation restricting the employment of children in mines and facto­ries was introduced by the British early in the century. More extensive legislation was passed following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Labour in 1932. The Indian Constitution contains a number of provisions intended to protect children, including a categorical ban that declares that “no child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment.” In the 1950s Parliament passed several acts prohibiting the employment of children in plantations, mines, merchant shipping, and in the bidi (indigenous cigarettes) and cigar industries. The use of apprentices below the age of fourteen was prohibited. As with so-called compulsory education legislation, these measures Had widespread sup­port.

Both goals were reconfirmed in 1979, the International Year of the Child, when the Indian government appointed a commission to inquire into the state of India’s children and to make recommendations for their improved well-being. The Ministry of Labour established a sixteen-member committee, including members of Parliament, representatives of various institutions dealing with children, and representatives of departments of the central and state governments, to examine the problems arising out of the employment of children. The commission was unequivocal in its support for both universal primary education and for bringing an end to child labor.

The Reality

Though forty years have passed since the Indian Constitution went into effect, most observers would agree with the late J. P. Naik, India’s fore­most scholar of education, that “the goal of universal primary education remains as elusive as ever before.” According to the government of In­dia, in 1979 there were 42 million children between the ages of six and fourteen—or 32 percent of the age group—who were not in school, but according to Indian census data and academic studies of dropouts, non-attendance is nearly twice as large. Official government estimates are that 60 percent of children drop out of school by class five and only 23 percent reach class eight. The Education Ministry reports that 62 percent of the eleven-to-fourteen age group is not enrolled. Moreover, the number of children in this age group not attending school actually increased from 25.3 million in 1970 to 28.3 million in 1979.

In 1981 the Indian census asked for the first time whether a person was attending school or college. The result gives us a measure of school attendance that is independent of the enrollment figures provided by India’s educational system (see tables 1.1 and 1.2}. The 1981 census reported that 82.2 million of India’s 158.8 million children ages six to four­teen did not attend school. Only 52.2 million of India’s 123.7 million rural children ages six to fourteen were in school (34.4 million-boys, 17.8 million girls). In urban India 24.4 million of 35.1 million attended school (13.5 million boys, 10.9 million girls). The highest attendance is among urban males in the ten-to-fourteen age group (77 percent) and the lowest is among rural females in the six-to-nine age group (31.3 percent). (These figures, it should be noted, are substantially at variance with official ministry figures on school enrollments. Since the census figures are consis­tent with many independent field studies conducted by independent research organizations, I will use them throughout this study.)

The school attendance figures account for India’s low literacy rate. In 1981 only 41.4 percent of India’s population above the age of five was literate (53.5 percent male, 28.5 percent female) with the highest literacy rates among urban males (74 percent) and the lowest among rural females (20.7 percent). In 1981, 56.6 percent of the ten-to-fourteen age group, 55.4 percent of the fifteen-to-nineteen age group, 52 percent of the twenty-to-twenty-four age group and 45.1 percent of the twenty-five-to-thirty-four age group were literate (see table 1.3).


School Attendance. 1981 (millions)

Age Group Total Population Total Attending School

Persons Male Female Persons Male Female

urban 6-9 15.8 8.1 7.7 10.6 5.7 4.9

10-14 19.3 10.1 9.2 13.8 7.8 6.0

rural 6-9 57.4 29.6 27.8 22.9 14.2 8.7

10-14 66.3 35.0 31.3 29.3 20.2 9.1

total 158.8 82.8 76.0 76.6 47.9 28.7

Source: Census of India 1981. Series J, India, Part H-Special. Report and Tables Based on 5 Per Cent Sample Data (New Delhi, 1983), p. 200 (urban), p. 205 (rural). India’s children, including those under six, number 263 million, of whom 135.8 are male and 127.2 arc female. They constitute 39.5 percent of India’s total population.

School and College Attendance, 1981 (percent)

Age Group Persons Male Female

rural 6-9 39.9 48.0 31.3

10-14 44.2 57.8 29.2

15-19 20.5 30.9 8.9

20-24 4.7 8.2 1.3

urban 6-9 67.1 70.4 63.6

10-14 71.5 77.0 65.2

15-19 42.9 50.2 34.5

20-24 13.4 18.5 7.5

total 6-9 45.8 52.8 38.3

10-14 50.5 62.1 37.5

15-19 26.4 36.0 15.5

20-24 7.2 11.3 3.0
Source: Census of India, 1981. Series 1, India, Part 11-Special, Report and Tables Based on 5 Per Cent Sample Data (New Delhi, 1983), p. 92. Since many children do not start primary school until they are above the minimum school age, the proportion of attendance in school is higher in the age group ten to fourteen than in the younger age group.
One measure of the limited effectiveness of India’s primary-school education system and its inability to expand enrollments fast enough to keep pace with population growth is the increase in the number of illiterates: 333 million in 1961, 386 million in 1971, and 437 million in 1981. The percentage of literates in the entire population has risen, however, from 24 percent in 1961 to 29.5 percent in 1971 to 36.2 percent in 1981 (see tables 1.4 and 1.5). The low school-attendance figures are reflected in the high illiteracy rate among young people.

Official figures on child labor are also indicative of the government’s failure to deal with the problem. The government reports that in 1983, 17.4 million Indian children below the age of fifteen were in the labor force, constituting 6.8 percent of the rural labor force and 2.4 percent of the urban labor force. While the vast proportion of India’s working children are employed in agriculture, many are engaged in industrial em­ployment: in carpet making 9 percent of the labor force is children; in brassware, 25 percent; in bidi, glass, and bangles, 33 percent; and in matches, 42 percent. Of those employed on plantations, 8 percent are children. Other studies put the number of child workers higher. By in­cluding children who do not receive wages but work full-time, the Op­erations Research Group, a respected research organization in Baroda, estimates that 44 million children in the five-to-fifteen age group are in the labor force.

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