Science - October 19, 2006

‘Child labour is a stain on the success story of India’

The Indian government recently passed a new law that forbids hotels, restaurants and private households to employ youngsters under the age of fourteen. The new measure should free about 250,000 children from long working hours often accompanied by physical violence and sexual abuse, but Rishikesh Ghongade, an Indian student at the Van Hall Instituut, has his doubts.

‘It’s poverty; in these poor families every member has to score a meal on their own,’ says Rishikesh. He can’t see that the act will have much effect unless the government comes up with an effective support programme for food and education. As far as he is concerned, child labour is a stain on the success story of India’s development.

Rishikesh is studying Food and Agribusiness Management at the Van Hall Instituut in Leeuwarden. His family owns a large grape company in Solapur, the agricultural centre of the state of Maharashtra. The class one grapes are exported to Europe and find their way to supermarkets including Albert Heijn. Rishikesh wants to expand the family business with a flower division.

‘My father started our business thirty years ago; he too went to Europe to study agriculture. As the company expanded, he felt it was his obligation to share his knowledge with the neighbouring small farmers. Nowadays the company owns a hundred acres of grapeyards and is supported by hundreds more acres of contributing farmers. And we all produce the same quality.’

Rishikesh points out that the manner in which his family operates, and which is strongly promoted by the Indian Agricultural Process and Food Export Development Authority, is the way to combat poverty in rural India. ‘You will find no children among the workers on our fields, everybody is at least eighteen. All our farmers have adopted these corporate standards.’

He has noticed a gradual change in his home country when it comes to employing children. If he had to make a guess, he would say that, in comparison with five years ago, child labour has decreased by about twenty percent. You will not see children working in big department stores and classy hotels, and international companies force suppliers to act according to their rules of conduct. But there is of course still a lot to be done.

When Rishikesh goes to town he will receive a ticket from a child at the parking lot. Another child will offer him refreshments at a little stall. A boy will present him a newspaper and in the small eateries of the city, the food is served by children. The less fancy hotels thrive on the backs of underage workers. Still he is hopeful. India is going through a period of unprecedented development; the fast growing economy is rapidly turning the subcontinent into a global player. Child labour will continue to be a burden on the ambitions of his country. The government estimates the number of child workers at 16 million; the World Bank thinks 45 million is a more accurate figure. ‘It does of course seem very strange that we can put satellites into space but cannot find a way to end child labour.’

Access to knowledge and education is the key to changing the lot of the majority of the poor, Rishikesh believes. The level of education is high but the problem remains that 75 percent of the Indian population live in small rural villages. He is pinning his hopes on the current policy of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, which divides India into agricultural zones. Each zone has its own programme of production tailored to the climatic conditions. The government will provide instruction support programmes for the local farmers. Wise men like his father will take their responsibility and lead the way. It may take thirty years before child labour is banned, but at the pace things are going now it could also happen within ten years.

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