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Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences


The article I published in the October 2000 issue of OIKONOMIA discussed the nature and the extent of child labour in India. Once we understand the nature of the problem, the next question we need to address is how to deal with it. Much effort has been put into international treaties and national legislation. Many conventions have been written, agreed, signed and ratified on the reduction and elimination of child labour, and much national legislation passed in India itself. Child labour, however, has to be tackled not only through legislation and conventions but also through direct rehabilitation programmes. The purpose of this article is to highlight three aspects of such rehabilitation programmes that are critical to their success. The first is the importance of the follow-up that is given to freed child labourers when they are introduced into formal schooling. The second is the need to find an alternative source of income for their parents once children leave paid work and return to school. The third aspect is the use of the VECs (Village Education Committees) and the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in the organisation of “incentive programmes” for poor children to return to school, or to remain there once they have returned.


The Need for Follow-up Programmes

The first critical factor we is the need for follow-up programs for ex-child labourers that continue into the period of formal schooling. Normally, NGOs and other humanitarian organisations start rehabilitation programmes for child labourers with the provision of some type of non-formal education. The period of non-formal education can last from a few months up to three years. During this period, children are either freed or in the process of being freed from full time labour. Children in these Non-formal Education (NFE) centres are usually provided with free textbooks, uniforms and a full meal. Parents too are often compensated for the loss of income. After the period spent in the NFE centres, many of these children pass into mainstream schooling in the formal education sector. For example, there have been several such rehabilitation programmes carried out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in India under the International Programme of Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) scheme. Through the IPEC programmes, about 80,000 children were admitted to the NFE centres in the period 1992-96. A substantial number had been working as bonded labourers. At least during the period of non-formal schooling all the participants stayed away from work. Different types of systems were used by the NGOs to impart a non-formal education. The level of attendance and retention in the NFE centres was almost total, 96-98 percent. Children were found happy and eager to learn.

The near total attendance and retention in the NFE centres of the IPEC (India), however, did not last in the formal school situation. In general, in the second biennium, when children had been channelled into formal schools, it was observed that about 30 to 35 percent of them dropped out and some went back to work. The Ahmedadbad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) noticed that the dropout rate was only 4 percent in NFE centres whereas it was 37 percent when children were admitted to the formal schools.

Observers noticed that this drop out rate was lower when children continued to be monitored and academically helped after passing on to the formal schools. M.Venkatarangaiya Foundation in Andra Pradesh has a system of gathering together child labourers and imparting a non-formal education to them for a period of a few months, keeping them in a camp. Afterwards children are admitted to formal schooling with continued follow-up, and the dropout rate has been found to be less than that in programmes where there follow-up was absent. According to analysts the main reason for the lower dropout rate was that the continued and regular system of monitoring the children after they had been admitted into formal schools. Similarly, an NGO called Cini-Asha in Calcutta also successfully implemented a scheme of monitoring the formal school attendance of the ex-child labourers. Since this NGO used a system to follow-up their attendance and performance in the school, it could succeed in retaining the children in the formal school for a considerable period. Another IPEC partner which succeeded in retaining many street children, rag pickers and children from slum areas in the formal school, was Karnataka State Council of Child Welfare. Out of 400 working children who participated in the programme, 283 were weaned away from work and were enrolled in the local formal schools. Some of the students who made the transition into a formal school completed as much as the 10th standard. According to the Evaluation Team that scrutinised the IPEC in India, one of the important reasons for the high rate of retention was that this NGO had a system of follow-up and monitoring even after their children were enrolled in the formal school. All the above experiences demonstrate the importance of maintaining a follow-up programme with children who have been introduced into formal school, having already been through a few months of NFE.


The Need for an Alternative Source of Income for Parents

The second critical factor in successful rehabilitation programmes is the provision of an alternative source of income for parents once their children have left work and return to school. The co-operation of the parents of child labourers has been a critical factor in the success of the non-formal education schemes of the IPEC programmes. Generally, when the children had returned to formal schooling, if the NGOs stopped their financial support, parents began to lose interest in their child’s education and often the children dropped out. It appeared that as well as the continued follow-up and motivation of the children, the provision of some source of an alternative source of income to the parents was critical in the success of the rehabilitation programmes. Parents could not continue to support the formal education of their children unless the loss of income from their children was somehow recovered from an alternative source.

A rehabilitation programme carried out for child labourers engaged in the export-oriented production of garments in Bangladesh demonstrates that there is a much better chance of success when the programme can make some arrangement for the family to have an alternative source of income. In 1992, there were about 50,000 to 75,000 children under 14, mainly girls, employed in garment factories in Bangladesh. The United States is the major importer of these garments. In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin proposed the so-called Child Labour Deterrence Act in the US Senate. The Bill, if passed, would have prohibited the importation into the US of all goods made using child labour. In 1993, the Bill was reintroduced. With that, employers in Bangladesh dismissed nearly 50,000 children (nearly 75 percent) from their garment factories. A series of follow-up visits made by UNICEF and ILO workers discovered that these children were looking for more hazardous and exploitative jobs than garment production. They were engaged in work such as stone-crushing, street work and prostitution. Many of these children who had no skills, with little or no education, had few other alternatives.

However, the ILO and UNICEF officers endeavoured to bring about an agreement in which there would be an arrangement for the adults in the families of the freed child labourers to be employed in the same textile factories where their children had worked. If not, stipends were given to replace the lost income from the child. After two years of difficult negotiations, in 1995 a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) and the UNICEF and ILO offices in Bangladesh. The BGMEA had committed about $1 million toward its implementation. According to the Memorandum, all children of less than 14 years of age working in the garment industry would be removed within a period of 4 months and there would be no more hiring of under-age children. The children who were removed had to be given appropriate educational programmes with a monthly stipend. The children’s jobs would be offered to qualified-adult family members. In addition, it was also agreed not to dismiss any child until a factory survey was completed and alternative arrangements were made for the freed children.

As of October 1996, 135 new schoolrooms were operational and more than 4000 children were enrolled as a result of this agreement. The children receive primary health care, skills development and training, and a monthly cash stipend to compensate for lost wages. In addition, personal bank accounts and credit facilities for their families are being set up.

Hence, this rehabilitation programme had two aspects. One was the rehabilitation of children through education, the other was the substitution of an alternative source of income for their families. When children were removed from labour, their jobs were usually given to adults among their family members. Children were not removed until an alternative arrangement was found not only for the child but also for maintaining the family income. Although the same pattern cannot be followed in all cases, finding an alternative source of income for the affected families appears to be a critical factor in the successful completion of any rehabilitation programme for child labourers in countries such as Bangladesh and India where there is a high incidence of poverty. Those setting up the programmes understood that children had been obliged to work full time due to the economic difficulties faced by their families. Hence, they included the provision of jobs for adult family members when a child was removed from labour.

Any plan to eliminate certain forms of child labour must be accompanied by social and economic support for both the children and their families.


Incentive Programmes

Study after study has confirmed that economic hardship of the family is a very important factor in school dropout and in child labour. To prevent drop-out, more than the provision of an alternative income is required for the family. In addition, the provision of incentive programmes has also been found to be critical. Incentive programmes may include the distribution of free textbooks, stationery, material for school uniforms and, where applicable, school fees. Since the total amount spent on incentive programmes is minimal in India, it is important to channel incentive programmes to the really poor children.

At present primary school incentives are usually administered through teachers. They are mainly targeted at children from scheduled castes and tribes. Almost all states in India provide incentive programmes to help poor students to continue their education. At the national level, out of the near 10 percent of school expenditure that remains after paying teachers’ salaries, more than five percent is spent on incentives for children to come to school. Each state has its own incentive programme. Distribution of free textbooks seems to be the incentive that is used most widely in primary education across the states. Almost all states have a policy for distributing free textbooks, primarily to students from scheduled castes and tribes. At the national level, 21 percent of the scheduled-caste and scheduled-tribe children received free textbooks in 1993. It is a fact that dropout rate is endemic among children from families that belong to the scheduled castes and tribes in India. Hence, several states target their incentive programmes to children from such communities.


Bad Targeting of Incentives

At the time of the 1991 census, there were 1,901 scheduled castes and 573 scheduled tribes in India. The definition of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe varies across states, and some castes are identified as both scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Each state has a different number of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. However, scheduled castes constitute only 16 percent and scheduled tribes 8 percent of the population, whereas nearly 40 percent of the population in India were living below the poverty line in 1992. This means that there are many others who are poor, even if they do not belong to any scheduled caste or tribe.

It is true that illiteracy is widely present among children who belong to certain scheduled castes and tribes. It is also true that poverty is prevalent among certain scheduled castes and tribes, but not among others. Therefore, not all the families who belong to these groups are as poor as families elsewhere. Targeting incentives to children from all the scheduled castes and tribes may leave many other poor children without any benefits, while including others who may not be in need of any incentive. It would be better to target incentives to all families who are poor irrespective of caste. Hence there is a need to move beyond the caste system and to look at the standard of living of each family. In order to target economic incentives at poor families irrespective of caste, Village Education Committees and the local NGOs may well do better than teachers.


The Role of Village Education Committees and local NGOs in targeting incentives

In 1992, there was a 'revolution' in India in the devolution of powers to local administrative bodies at the constitutional level. In that year, Parliament enacted the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. The 73rd amendment gives ample autonomy to village, block, and district councils to promote economic development and social welfare in their own areas. As part of this decentralisation, an updated ‘National Policy of Education’ was included. The most remarkable aspect of this new policy is the power given to the village, block, and district councils, known as ‘Panchayat Raj’, institutions in the management of primary, secondary, adult, non-formal, technical and vocational education. Recommended responsibilities include personnel (appointing and transferring teachers), finance (allocating funds to schools, preparing budgets and approving expenditures, and generating resources through fees and donations) and academic supervision. As authorised under the decentralisation reforms, CABE (The Committee on Decentralised Management of Education) proposed to establish Village Education Committees and Panchayat Standing Committees. These local bodies would provide supervision (monitoring student and teacher attendance) and advice (recommendations on the school budget) and carry out minor tasks (construction and repair work, setting the school calendar). The proposed Village Education Committee should include the chairman of the panchayat, the head teacher or headmaster, and persons interested in education. It should include representatives of parents, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward castes, minorities, and workers in child-care centres. In addition, a third of the members would have to be women.

One of the reasons for the efficiency of the proposed Village Committee in reaching poor families with full-time child labourers would be the obligatory inclusion of representatives from the communities where school absenteeism and child labour are predominant. As pointed out earlier, school dropouts and child labour are concentrated among certain scheduled castes and tribes. Since Village Education Committees should include representatives from such groups, and since one third of the members have to be women, it can be expected that such representation would be a great help in identifying the really poor families in a community and in target the incentive programmes at them.

Generally, teachers do not have the time, nor often the dedication, to help poor children to persevere in their education. It is not easy for teachers both to teach and to administer the incentive programmes with efficiency. The NGOs and the Village Education Committees would be better placed to identify the really poor children and to administer incentive programmes because they have more opportunity to deal directly with the families of child labourers than the teachers.

During a research project at Kasimedu, Chennai, I and my fellow-researcher met an 11-year-old boy who wanted to study but had no adult member to help him in the family. His father had drowned in the sea and his mother was in prison for having sold illicit alcohol. Another six year-old-boy was helping the coconut trader; he was one of three children in his family. All of the children in this family were under 10 years of age and were doing full-time jobs. The Village Education Committees could make arrangements to visit such families and explore the possibilities of providing them with some incentives in order to send at least one child to school rather than to full-time jobs.

UNICEF in India, having realised the importance of the Village Education Committees for the improvement of primary education, has collaborated with the CABE in establishing such Committees in various villages. They have been involved in monitoring enrolment and attendance of children, in school construction, repairs and maintenance and in monitoring incentive programmes. The Bihar Education Project (BEH) is one such project started by UNICEF in Bihar in 1991-92. BEH had created 3,859 Village Education Committees by the end of 1993. With the help of such Committees, the BEH by the year 1995 was able to construct 142 schools (423 were in the process of construction) and distribute free textbooks to 276,503 children.

The Village Education Committees have also shown that they can reduce foul play in the administration of incentives. For instance, experiences in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu show that the Panchayat Raj reforms, and in particular, the Village Education Committees or similar local organisations such as the parents’ union, have been instrumental in improving teachers’ performance and in improving the administration of incentives. It is said that in Karnataka the attendance of teachers and health workers went up by 91 percent after the implementation of the Panchayat Raj system. Research indicates that monitoring by a politically conscious parents’ community was vital in the success of the pre-school education and school meal programmes in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, community institutions and the building up of public accountability have played a crucial role in the state’s educational growth.


Dedication and the Efficiency in the NGOs

In several countries, the NGOs are in the forefront in helping child labourers. Many rehabilitation programmes are implemented by the NGOs. They remain true to their cause. For the government, political survival takes precedence over public service. NGOs are independent from political motives, public opinion creation and pressure. They can champion the cause of the exploited and endangered children in a better way than the government.

The big difference between NGOs and the government is the dedication of their staff members. Some members of NGOs feel a deep personal concern for the children whom they serve. They show a strong solidarity with the children. This type of personal dedication is something that money cannot buy and bureaucracies cannot exact. Some of the NGOs are community organisations that are dealing with people from their neighbourhood, and virtually with their friends. Often they are connected to religious institutions or are inspired by religious and philosophical principles. In general children do not easily confide in adults who do not care for them, but the trust of these children has been further diminished by the adults who have abused them. They know that often society looks down on them, and sometimes even regards them as delinquents. It is thus important to win their confidence. Only solidarity and real concern and respect for what they do will create such confidence.

Another factor is the creativity of the NGOs. Many ideas that are in operation for the defence of children have come from NGOs. Governments in several countries have accepted their ideas. The NGOs do not have one particular model. There are a variety of NGOs and a variety of proposals. Some work for the complete abolition of child labour; some work only among the children who labour in very hazardous occupations; some work for the overall improvement of the situation of working children; some work for creating awareness through publicity, while others work in the field of education. In brief, NGOs are trying to help the children who are in need at present without ‘spending’ too much time in discussion as to whether there should be an immediate total elimination of child labour or not. In India itself, the NGOs are in the frontline in defending the rights of child labourers. SAARC and CLASS for example work among bonded child labourers and have freed and rehabilitated thousands of bonded children in the carpet and bidi making industries of India. More than 75 percent of the IPEC programmes in India have been carried out by NGOs. They adapt various strategies in reaching and helping child labourers engaged in various hazardous occupations.

An NGO in Karnataka that wanted to establish contact with the local people before organising NFE for child labourers did so by helping the local community in various ways. One of these ways was to assist the old and widows to get their pensions. This shows that the NGOs can become effective agents in helping the really poor. The members of the NGO in the above-mentioned example have tried to help the old and the widows not with any additional assistance of their own but by making sure that they receive their already existing government-sponsored pensions. The poor are usually illiterate and they do not know how to proceed with the bureaucratic requirements for obtaining government-granted assistance. By supporting the illiterate poor in obtaining their rights, the NGOs can become effective agents for the government in reaching and distributing assistance to really poor families.



Rehabilitation of child labourers is complex and enormous. It needs not only finance but also great patience and perseverance. It appears that imparting some form of informal education itself is not sufficient for rehabilitating a child labourer. A freed child labourer needs continuous follow-up and attention both in the academic and economic field. Academically, the child needs particular attention and assistance in the formal school. It is not easy for a child to return to school after a break of several months or a couple of years. The other factor is the importance of providing an alternative source of income to the parents of child labourers. The responsibility lies mainly in the hands of the government.

At the same time, the provision of certain incentives does help poor parents to retain their children in school at least for a few years. The central and the state governments have to allocate more funds for the provision of incentive programmes in primary schools. There is a need to target the incentives at the family level and not at the caste level. The Village Education Committees and the local NGOs could become very useful in reaching the really poor families. They need not substitute the teachers who administer the incentives. But they can collaborate with the teachers in identifying and reaching the really poor families in their own areas. Almost all the humanitarian agencies have welcomed the decentralisation reforms introduced by the government. What is needed now is to make maximum use of these reforms. Since more than 75 percent of children live in the villages, making use of such Village Education Committees and the local NGOs to reach poor families would help to improve retention rate at the national level and reduce child labour in the long term.


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Albino Barrera OP  -  Stefano Menghinello  -  Sabina Alkire

Introduction of Piotr Janas OP