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India, an IT giant and the world's second-fastest growing major economy, has millions of Rajus: all under 14 years of age, some as young as 4 or 5, and all toiling hard just to get a square meal to keep body and soul from parting company. Child labor is a  dagger through India's soul. The country has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest child labor force in the world, with an estimated 30 percent of the world's working kids living here.

His liquid eyes, twin pools of innocence, have a sparkle that only children are blessed with. He speaks in a staccato burst, tripping over his words and lisps a current Bollywood hit with glee.

His toothy, impish grin belies the fact that while other children his age are either playing or being schooled, he is forced to serve food to people at the dhaba that he works at on the Mumbai-Nagpur highway near Jalgaon in Maharashtra. He does not seem to be a day over ten years old, but insists he is fourteen.

Raju — he doesn't offer his surname — goes about his chore with a cheerfulness that is almost heart-breaking. If he knows that he has been deprived of the right to childhood or of the joys of being a goofy kid or to fulfill his true potential, he disguises it well behind his infectious smile.

He has no inkling of what the future holds for him nor does he seem to care. He is just too busy trying to earn enough to buy some food so that he and his family do not go to bed hungry.

Today, though, he is happy, secure in the knowledge that he would not have to make do with water alone when he goes to bed after a grueling 12-hour work day at the dhaba.

India, an IT giant and the world's second-fastest growing major economy, has millions of Rajus: all under 14 years of age, some as young as 4 or 5, and all toiling hard just to get a square meal to keep body and soul from parting company.

Child labor is a dagger through India's soul. The country has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest child labor force in the world, with an estimated 30 percent of the world's working kids living here.

Today millions of children work as laborers in various businesses in India. You find children being exploited in restaurants, silk industry, carpet weaving, firecracker units, etc.

These kids are forced to work to help their poor families, but this robs them of their right to childhood and all its associated joys. Child labor also crushes their right to normal physical and mental development, to education and thus to a healthy, prosperous life.

Seven days a week, these children toil as hard as their tender bodies can allow them to, working in inhuman conditions in cramped, dim rooms, breathing toxic fumes, and every now and then being subjected to verbal and physical violence by their employers. These young children work for hours on end, suffering from constant fatigue.

Most of these kids work for as less as Rs. 300 to  Rs. 500 a month; sometimes for no money at all as they are given food to survive.

Government statistics say that there are 2 crore (20 million) child laborers in India, a country that has ambitions of becoming a global superpower in a few years. Non-governmental agencies assert that the figure is more than 6 crore (60 million) including agricultural workers; some claim that the number could be 100 million, if one were to define all children out of school as child laborers.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 218 million children ages 5-17 are engaged in child labor the world over.

l An estimated 14 percent of children in India between the ages of 5 and 14 are engaged in child labor activities, including carpet production.

l It would cost $760 billion over a 20-year period to end child labor. The estimated benefit in terms of better education and health is about six times that — over $4 trillion in economies where child laborers are found.

l Some children are forced to work up to 18 hours a day, often never leaving the confines of the factory or loom shed.

l Children trafficked into one form of labor may be later sold into another, as with girls from rural Nepal, who are recruited to work in carpet factories but are then trafficked into the sex industry over the border in India.

A recent report, produced by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, says there are as  many as 60 million children working  in India's agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors. The report argues that India's booming economy takes advantage of children workers to aid its growth and to bring wealth to a minority.

Even though the urban centers see many child laborers, estimates say that about 80 percent of child laborers reside in rural India, where they are forced to work in agricultural activities such as fanning, livestock rearing, forestry and fisheries.

Reports say that there are more children under the age of 14 in India than the entire population of the United States. And children under 14 years of age account for about 4 percent of the total labor force in the country. Of these children, nine out of every ten work in their own rural family settings. 

Nearly 85 percent are engaged in traditional agricultural activities. Less than 9 percent work in manufacturing, services and repairs. About 0.8 percent works in factories.

The most inhuman form of child exploitation is the age old practice of bonded labor in India. Here children are sold to the buyer like a commodity for a certain period of time. The labor that the child is subjected to is treated as collateral security and exploiters “buy” them for small sums at exorbitant interest rates.

There are many reasons for child labor. Poverty is the biggest reason for child labor in India. The small income of child laborers is also absorbed by their families. 

Absence of compulsory education at the primary level, parental ignorance regarding the bad effects of child labor, the lack of implementation of child labor laws and penalties, non-availability and non-accessibility of schools, boring and unpractical school curriculum and cheap child labor are some other factors which lead to child labor.

Businesses save money as child labor is cheap and kids can be easily exploited, taking advantage of their parents' poverty and helplessness. This further spurs the rise of child labor in the country. So factories find loopholes and get round the law by declaring that the child laborer is a distant family member or is above 14 years of age. 

Child labor in India is mostly practiced in restaurants, roadside stalls; matches, fireworks and explosives industry; glass and bangles factories; beedi-making; carpet-making; lock-making; brassware; export-oriented garment units; gem polishing export industry; slate mines and manufacturing units; leather units; diamond industry; building and construction industry; brick kilns, helpers to mechanics, masons, carpenters, painters, plumbers, cooks, etc.

Thousands of affluent Indians hire youngsters for household chores and to look after their own kids, under the pretext of providing some money to the parents of the child laborers and of offering a better life than he/she would normally have had.

Non-governmental organizations working towards eradicating child labor in India say that:
l Two out of every three working children are physically abused.
l Over 50 percent children were being subjected to one or the other form of physical abuse.
l 50.2 percent children worked seven days a week.
l 53.22 percent children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.
l 21.90 percent child respondents reported facing severe forms of sexual abuse and 50.76 percent other forms of sexual abuse.
l Every second child reported facing emotional abuse.

The Indian Constitution says that child labor is a wrong practice and standards should be set by law to eliminate it. The Child Labor Act of 1986 implemented by the government of India makes child labor illegal in many regions and sets the minimum age of employment at 14 years. No wonder the barely 10-year-old Raju at the dhaba said he was 14. Exploiters threaten kids in many ways and the child has no way out but to lie to keep his “job.”

Due to economic factors, many of the law's goals are difficult to meet. The law, for example, does nothing to protect children who perform domestic or unreported labor. In almost all Indian industries girls are unrecognized laborers because they are seen as helpers and not workers. Girls are thus not protected by the law.

June 12 was observed as World Day against Child Labor. A group of eminent people on June 12, gave a petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking a ban on all forms of employment of children under the age of 14 and sought urgent amendments to the child labor law.

“Save the Children,” an NGO, which started a 45-day campaign against child labor, asked 45 prominent people from various walks of life to endorse a petition at the end of its campaign.

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