commentary

(Rediff)

November 10, 2006

A Laid-Off Child Is a Terrible Mind to Waste

by Krishna B. Kumar

You can lay down the law and forbid children from eating unhealthy foods, but think of how much easier it would be to enforce that law if you provided tasty, healthy alternatives!

Legal restrictions went into force recently in India to prohibit employment of children under the age of 14 in households, hotels and roadside restaurants. These laws would likewise be easier to enforce if the government provided children and their families with an attractive alternative to work, namely education.

India has the largest child workforce in the world, amounting to 3.6 per cent of its total labour force. This is rightly viewed as a moral and social problem, and recent prohibitions are just the latest additions to a long list of occupations that the government has blacklisted since 1986.

But enforcement of the new restrictions is likely to be as tricky as the enforcement of previous ones. India simply does not have the infrastructure to enforce child labour and juvenile delinquency laws as effectively as the United States and other developed countries.

Understanding the economic realities of the situation and acting upon them would facilitate compliance, and allow such restrictions to have real bite. The government has to think like the poor parents, who weigh the costs and benefits of sending their children to school instead of work.

On the cost side, the government has to recognise that poor families are hurt in the short run when their children are prohibited from working, discomforting as this realisation might be. Providing free tuition alone is not going to compensate for the lost income these children could have contributed to their families, as many estimates suggest that the cost of foregone earnings is higher than direct cost of tuition, uniforms and books.

If the government wants the poorest families to comply with these restrictions, it will have to go beyond free schools and provide them with cash compensation as long as they send their children to school.

Programmes such as Progresa in Mexico have followed this idea with success, and other countries have adopted similar programmes. Merely adding to the list of prohibited occupations is not going to entice the nine out of ten working children who are employed by their own families, mainly in agriculture, to attend school. The families have to be duly compensated.

The midday meal scheme that is in place in many Indian states is a useful first step in this direction, but the government can do more. A tight fiscal situation is scant excuse for not adopting such policies — investment in human capital is as important as the physical investment for which the government is able to find resources.

Indeed, conventional capital can flow in from abroad even if there is domestic scarcity, but human capital has to be accumulated from within.

On the benefit side, a parent weighs the quality of education and the opportunities likely to exist for a schooled child. Given the cost of foregone earnings incurred in sending a child to school, one can sympathise with a parent who chooses to not do so in the face of crumbling schools where even teachers do not bother showing up.

The government will have to tackle issues of school quality — by building better schools, clamping down on teacher absenteeism, and decentralising school administration so that village authorities can better monitor teachers — before it can reasonably expect children to attend schools instead of going to work.

It is unlikely that many of the poor children who attend school, either on account of mandates or because of right incentives, would go on to college. If not enough opportunities are available for those who enter the labour force after finishing school, parents are again unlikely to find it worthwhile to enrol their children.

Until recently, Indian growth has been highly skewed toward the higher technology sectors which mainly benefit the highly skilled. A development strategy that is built on the broader base of manufacturing is necessary to provide opportunities for those with lower levels of education.

As laudable as the Indian government's recent child labour laws are, there is much hard work left to ensure voluntary compliance of these laws. Steps to ameliorate the loss of income from children, improve the quality of schools, and create an economic environment that provides opportunities for schooled children would all have to be undertaken.

Replacing working children with idle children who have no future would otherwise be a hollow victory.


Dr Krishna Kumar teaches economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and is a senior economist at RAND in Santa Monica, California.

This commentary originally appeared in Rediff on November 10, 2006.