Child Labour and Forced labour in India

A recent study, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme and The Coca-Cola Company has raised the issue of ambiguity about definitions of child labour and forced labour in India related laws, especially for sugarcane producing states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Findings of the study

  • Instances were found where child labour was discounted quoting the incidence of ‘children helping parents in the field’.
  • Confusion was apparent about the advance payment to migrant workers, and associated risks of forced or bonded labour.
  • Most of the interventions, either by government authorities or by the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of companies, in the sugarcane sector, were focused just on improving farming techniques to ensure an increase in cane productivity. 

Child Labour in India

  • Definition: India’s Census 2001, defines child labour as participation of a child less than 17 years of age in any economically productive activity with or without compensation, wages or profit.
  • As per Census 2011, 10.1 million children (3.9% of total child population) are working, either as ‘main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’.
  • Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh – together constitute nearly 55% of the total population of working children in India.
Child Labour and Forced labour in India

Laws regulating/prohibiting child labour

  • Article 24 prohibits employment of children below the age of 14 in any factory, mine or other hazardous activities like construction work or railways.
  • National Policy on Child Labour, formulated in 1987, seeks to adopt a gradual & sequential approach with a focus on rehabilitation of children and adolescents.
  • Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986: its amendment in 2016 prohibits employment of children below 14 in all occupations. It prohibits the employment of adolescents (14-18 years) in certain hazardous occupations.
  • The Factories Act of 1948: The Act prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory. The law also placed rules on who, when and how long can children aged 15–18 years be employed in any factory.
  • The Mines Act of 1952: It prohibits the employment of children below 18 years of age in a mine.
  • The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act of 2000: This law made it a crime, punishable with a prison term, for anyone to procure or employ a child in any hazardous employment or in bondage
  • The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009: It mandates free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 years. This legislation also mandated that 25 per cent of seats in every private school must be allocated for children from disadvantaged groups and physically challenged children.

Limitations in the proper implementation of the above laws

  • Non-awareness: Lack of awareness among people about the labour laws in India is a cause for its poor implementation.
  • Poverty: Many families live below the poverty line and they cannot support their living so they send their children to work.
  • Illiteracy: illiterates are not aware of the rules and regulations due to a lack of education.
  • Lack of political will: lack of political will is another obstacle.
  • Lack of efficiency: the labour laws are not implemented properly due to inefficient administrative machinery.
  • Unemployment: People are not able to earn due to unemployment and so they send their children to work in order to earn more.
  • Will of parents: Some parents don’t wish to send their children to school rather they send them to fields to work.

Measures needed

  • Data: Identifying and generating gender-disaggregated data on child labour and its worst forms in agriculture and its sub-sector.
  • Education: Sustainable, meaningful and relevant education and vocational skills for children of migrant workers in agriculture in the source as well as destination areas.
  • Regulations: Minimum wages and decent living and working conditions for legally standardised working hours and ensuring they are gender-equal irrespective of their gender or caste.
  • Supply chain assessments: Assessment of supply chains from top to bottom to ensure the rights of workers at the foot.
  • Collective rights: Promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining at the lowest of the tiers. 

Bonded Labour

  • The definition as provided in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976:
    • It is a system of forced (or partly forced) labour in which a debtor enters (or presumed to have entered) into an agreement with the creditor. Owing to this agreement, the following are the end results:
      1. Render services to the creditor (by himself or through a family member) for a specified (or unspecified) period of time with no wages (or nominal wages).
      2. Forfeit the right to move freely.
      3. Forfeit the right to appropriate or sell the product or property at the market value from his (or his family members’) labour or service.

Constitutional and legal provisions related to bonded labour

  • Article 21 of the Indian Constitution: provides for the Right to Life.
    • It’s a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution and cannot be amended.
    • It secures the right to life and the right to live with human dignity to every person in India.
  • Article 23 of the Indian Constitution: provides for the abolition of forced labour.
    • It also covers the practice of Begar and other forms of human trafficking in India.
  • The Indian Penal Code (IPC) recognizes the offence of unlawful compulsory labour and imposes a punishment of imprisonment.
  • The Minimum Wages Act 1948 sets the minimum wage for certain listed occupations and requires that overtime be paid to whoever is working beyond the ‘normal working day.’
  • Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976: prescribes imprisonment to whoever compelling a person to render their service under bonded labour and whoever advances the bonded debt.

Factors responsible for the continuance of this system of forced labour

  • The usurious rate of interest is one of the leading factors which contribute to its continuance.
  • Faulty system of adjustment of wages with the amount lent, prevalent ignorance, illiteracy, being socially backward, lack of debtor’s organisation etc. are other factors contributing to the continuance of bonded labour.


  • The stakeholders benefiting from crops such as sugarcane must take the accountability of ensuring the rights of the most marginalised workers and their children in the supply chain and be extremely diligent of how these complex social and political realities shape issues of child and forced labour to fulfil the needs of global trade and consumer demands.
  • The bonded labour and child labour have been continuing despite many Constitutional provisions and various legislations prohibiting them. The real issue lies in the implementation of these laws which needs a strong political and administrative will..


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