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A case for the agricultural child labor

, January 8, 2013, 3 Comments

Children begging in the middle of a street or selling articles on the roadside is a common sight in any city of India. In layman’s term can we address these children as child laborers? Not necessarily. These constitute a small section of a larger picture, as witnessed today. In extreme cases, children are enslaved, separated from their families at a tender age, exposed to harmful chemicals and made to work forcefully for low wages. Child labor is an issue that concerns all in a developing nation like India.

Why are we concerned (or not….)?

The incidence of child labor is widespread across India. Recent statistics have shown a rise in the number of working children in India. The 1991 national census estimated the number of working children at 11.2 million and the 2001 national census estimated the number of working children at 12.6 million (out of a total of 210 million children aged 5-14 years) of which 6.8 million were boys and the remaining girls. As shown in the graph below, agriculture involves the highest number of children as workers, both male and female(as laborers and cultivators).

Worldwide, agriculture is the sector where by far the largest share of child laborers is found – nearly 60 percent. Over 129 million girls and boys aged 5 to 17 years old work in crop and livestock production, helping supply some of the food and drink we consume and the fibres and raw materials we use to make other products.

This figure includes child laborers in fisheries and forestry. Almost 70 percent of child laborers are unpaid family workers  (Global Report 2010 by fao-ilo.org).  Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of work-related fatalities, non-fatal accidents and occupational diseases.

Agriculture is an important sector of the Indian economy, as it not only contributes to overall growth of the country but also provides employment and food security; is the single largest employer, with almost 73% of the population dependent on this sector. Historically, the case of farmers has always been a matter of concern. While there is limited information on the functioning of the pre-feudal societies, under feudalism, obligation was laid on the producer to fulfill the demands of the landlords.

Agricultural laborers were harassed due to the low level of technology used, political situations and conditional holding of farmer land by landlords in return for various kinds of services. Agricultural laborers were exploited through land and credit. With the advent of capitalism in agriculture, productivity and efficiency was expected to rise. The introduction of green revolution and the additional help provided by the government in the form of organized lending and credit facilities, reforms in the land act were all a part of the Government’s approach to boost agricultural growth. However, children as farm workers were easily overlooked.

Traditionally, children have been expected to work on the farm land, free of cost, as a part of their familial duties. It has been understood that farm activity is a form of education for children in rural India. But with rapid industrialization, and capitalism setting in agriculture, civic activists identified the dangers of child labor in industrial settings. Children working in the agricultural sector were at the risk of exposure to pesticides and other sharp and harmful equipments. This led to legislations restricting the age and hours of work of children.

Since the introduction of High yield varieties (HYV) in mid-sixties, Indian agriculture has demonstrated tremendous growth.  The use of HYV had been accompanied by the replacement of animal draft power by mechanical draft power. But this caused widespread concern among social scientists and administrators for they feared that the spread of this technological change could have adverse consequences for farm employment.

However, numerous studies have shown that children not only perform as well as the adult workforce, but also spend more number of hours working on the field at lower wages. In the given agricultural scenario in India, mechanizing agriculture should have a positive impact on the child laborers.

Children are employed in every phase of crop production:

  • Ploughing
  • Sowing
  • Threshing
  • Harvesting
  • Winnowing

With the use of modern technology and the latest equipment in agriculture, technology should be able to replace child workers.

Ploughing being the most difficult of agricultural operations is seen to have more participation of children than adult men and women. The extent to which child labor is used is greater in weeding, harvesting and other agricultural jobs. If machines and equipments were to be used instead of manual labor, wouldn’t the productivity increase and be profitable for the laborers and cultivators equally? Wouldn’t replacing child workers with adult laborers to operate the machinery help every party involved in crop production?

Children are exposed to many types of risks and dangers while participating in agricultural work

  • Working with heavy machinery, equipment and tools such as knives, chainsaws, ladders, tractors or trucks
  • Pressure to work fast without breaks and despite injury
  • Motion injuries as a result of bending at the waist, kneeling, reaching and holding ergonomically awkward positions
  • Exposure to pesticides on fields

As children are at high risk if involved in agricultural work, it would be beneficial to all, to have machinery used for each of the operations, from ploughing to sowing and harvesting. Replacing manual labor with mechanical labor, especially with the substitution of child workers, can reduce the risk to child health and child well-being, increase productivity and efficiency – leading to an increase in production, creating a surplus and thereby increasing the profit margin for cultivators. Although it has been found that the use of machinery in agriculture has seen a higher conversion rate of agricultural laborers to cultivators, the number of child laborers has remained the same.

The condition of agricultural child workers has been overlooked for decades, but for an agrarian economy like India to be developed, it is imperative that appropriate measures be taken to deal with this issue.






About author
Arpita chakravorty is a post-graduate (MSC) in Financial Economics from Madras School of Economics, India. Currently working as a Research Associate at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, which involves economic research and data analysis. ...more ...more