India is known to have the largest number of child labourers in the world. Consequently, it has come under intense media and political scrutiny both within India and from afar. Traditional understandings of the causes of child labour have focused on the economic, social-cultural, and historical milieus specific to India, such as caste, class, corruption, gender, illiteracy, lack of law enforcement, political apathy, poverty, religion, etc. Whilst these are undoubtedly useful but also problematic considerations, so are child labour and children’s rights within the broader context of neoliberal globalisation and the interplay between international, national, and local discourses.
The argument I present is seemingly straightforward: that it is short-sighted just to look at India in isolation when examining the issue of child labour. Rather, broader global processes at play within and outwith India complicate the issue, some of which are India’s own making and others that are not. It was the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1991 that liberalised India’s economy and opened it up to global forces associated with neoliberal globalisation. The ‘liberalisation’ of India continues to have profound implications for its people; whilst it created new winners and losers in India’s political economy, rather ironically, it simultaneously crystallised traditional (illiberal) relations and structures of power, notably caste, class, gender, and religion. So what does the future hold for child labour in India? What possible scenarios may impact on how child labour is seen and understood?
India remains wedded to neoliberal globalisation. This has had profound implications for all sections of Indian society
First, India remains wedded to neoliberal globalisation. This has had profound implications for all sections of Indian society, regardless of whether they are willing participants or not. The fruits of globalisation have been resoundingly unequal. Despite the occasional news headlines of ‘Dalit billionaires’, for the majority of the poor there has been little or no qualitative improvement in their lives, rather many have found themselves pushed further to the margins of society and precariousness, whilst the much lauded and written about middle-classes and elites delight in their relatively recent newfound global status and material wealth, particularly as consumers.
Second, notwithstanding the rhetoric of building an inclusive India with promises of development and employment for adults, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP continue to push ahead with a vision of India that reproduces caste hierarchies and sustains the hegemony of those located higher in the Hindu social order that legitimises exploitative practices, such as child labour. Importantly, Dalits have become further marginalised and violence towards them continues with impunity. Child labour, as a form of structural violence, is part of the broader matrices of discrimination and violence encountered by Dalits that are instantiated by the caste complex.
Third, the answer to overcoming many of these culturally sanctioned systemic inequalities is the implementation of meaningful education that is truly transformative. For the reasons given, in the short term this proposition is pretty unlikely. However, in the long term, there may come a time when India’s quest to become a global economic and political superpower may depend on a far larger educated population. Therefore, it may be in the long-term interest of those classes and castes that currently dominate Indian society to loosen their grip over the control of education, which remains a key site of power and exclusion.
Fourth, social movements and NGOs working for human rights increasingly encounter greater threats to human rights and the structures that protect them. Since the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks (2001), the subsequent ‘war on terror’, the recent rise of so-called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and various insurgences taking place in various countries (including India), governments have increasingly diverted already scare resources from social and welfare services to securitised programmes with the aim of tackling extremism (although the two are intimately linked). Indeed, governments around the globe have used the real or perceived threat of terrorism to implement draconian security measures that trump civil liberties and human rights. Such measures have been used to silence social movements, NGOs, and political opponents that seek to hold the state to account or call into question the legitimacy of its power. Consequently, issues such as child labour, the right to education, the right to welfare, poverty, discrimination etc., simply fall to the wayside. Put simply, they are deemed unimportant and irrelevant to those in power. This makes the work of civil society even more urgent despite coming under greater scrutiny and facing decreasing funding.
Fifth, there is growing apathy in the North towards the South. There is a growing perception that all the government aid packages and charity from the North simply haven’t placated the ‘savages’ of the South. Indeed, there is also a perception that the elites in the North are not dealing with the needs of the marginalised in their own countries. The conflation of issues such as poverty, disease, exploitation, refugees, asylum seekers, radicalization, terrorism, conflict, and human rights abuses in the South has meant that both interest and people’s moral compass in the North is waning in terms of the South. In the media, the South is the ‘Other’ which is represented as ‘out of control’, more ‘dangerous’, and more ‘uncivilized’ than ever before. Child labour in India is seen to be indicative of deficiencies within Indian society and ‘not the West’s problem’. As a result, campaigns and calls for public support in the fight for children’s rights in the South are ebbing in the face of public consternation.
Related, sixth, in some respects, India’s economic success has also been its undoing in terms of how it is seen from afar. As the world looks on at India’s economic success and the emergence of wealthy social groups whose lives are replete with all the status symbols associated with wealth in the North, there is growing apathy in the North about whether governments should send aid packages to India to address such issues as child labour, discrimination education, poverty, etc. The example of the Indian government’s investment in a space programme is often held up as evidence that aid to India is not necessary. This is especially the case when many of the countries in the North have also encountered an economic recession and stagnating economic growth. This comes at a time when there is growing nationalist sentiments in countries such as the UK, which recently elected to leave the European Union.
Finally, the issue of child labour in India faces new challenges and an uncertain future – India and the world around it have changed so much in a relatively short period of time. The struggle remains to keep the plight of child labourers in the news headlines at a time when terrorism, economic uncertainty, and conflict seem to dominate. Here, civil society social movements and NGOs are absolutely pivotal in keeping in check both the growing power of the state and ever-expanding global capital.
Featured image credit: Crowded market street in India, by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.