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Children of the Soil
|by Nitin Jugran Bahuguna|
When it comes to hazardous workplaces for children, agriculture is one of the three most perilous work sectors, along with mining and construction. Yet, over 132 million girls and boys, aged from five to 14 years, globally, are employed in crop and livestock production. The agriculture sector accounts for largest share of working children - nearly 70 per cent.
These children endlessly toil away at farms cultivating cereals, cocoa, coffee, fruit, sugar, palm oil, rice, tea, tobacco and vegetables. They often have to use sharp tools designed for adults, carry loads too heavy for them and even operate dangerous machinery. They also risk exposure to toxic pesticides, dusts, diseases and unsanitary conditions.
The book has been presented by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Indus Child Labour Project - an intervention to put a stop to child labour in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh with support from Ministry of Labour and Employment and the United States Department of Labour.
According to ILO Conventions, child labour is termed as work that harms children's well-being and hinders their education, development and future livelihoods. When children are forced to work long hours in the fields, their ability to attend school or learn skills becomes limited, preventing them from gaining education that could help lift them out of poverty in the future. Girls are particularly disadvantaged as they have to undertake household chores after working in the fields.
According to Dr G.K. Chadha, a member of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, there is a great need to invest in the education and skill development of young people to take advantage of India's young population.
The book states that 39.10 per cent of India's total population is in the workforce. Out of the 1,266.7 million children working between the age group of 5 to 14, 578 million or 45.62 per cent are main workers and 688.7 million or 54.38 per cent are marginal workers. Mizoram earned the dubious distinction of being the state with the highest share of workers aged between 5-14 years at 12.34 per cent, while the Union Territory of Lakshadweep had the lowest share at 0.19 per cent.
According to Prof Ravi Srivastava, Member, National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, the core of the problem of child labour in agriculture is that it is a large and unregulated sector. Moreover, the nature of agriculture is also changing significantly as it is being subjected to an unprecedented rate of commercialization. "Agriculture is now an increasingly commercialized activity and new forms of commercial activities will raise new forms of child labour," he warns.
However, it must be pointed out that not all work that children undertake in the agriculture sector is bad for them. Indeed, many types of work experience can be positive - so long as they do not interfere with their schooling. It has been found that young people engaged in some aspects of farm work have a higher sense of self-esteem and better work skills.
In this context, Ashok Sahu, Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, underlines the need for regulating the employment of children in agriculture to ensure that they do not participate in work that is harmful to their health, safety and development.
Agricultural activities such as mixing and applying pesticides and using certain types of machinery are so dangerous that children should be totally prohibited from engaging in them, underlines Shanta Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. "The time has come to prohibit all forms of child labour in line with the right to education. Child labour can no longer be tolerated in any of its forms," she asserts.
The most important contributor to this problem is poverty. In the developing countries, poor parents are confronted with the difficult choice of either providing for the family's current need for food, shelter and clothing or investing in their child's future. In order to eliminate child labour, a comprehensive set of strategies, which can provide families with a viable choice to keep their children away from labour, have to be developed, observes Leyla Tegmo Reddy, ILO's representative in India. The key is to build strong rural institutions, which include farmers' organizations and trade unions, to collectively bargain to improve adult incomes, wages and labour standards.
In this respect, ILO has already taken a step in the right direction. It has forged a global partnership with key international agricultural organizations to tackle child labour in agriculture. The partnership includes Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).
The new partnership will help develop policies to promote the application of laws on child labour in agriculture. They also plan to make efforts to improve rural livelihoods; reduce the urban, rural and gender gaps in education; and promote youth employment opportunities in agriculture in rural areas.
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