We have all seen these often.
Children, barely eight or nine years old, selling evening newspapers at intersections.
Young children working as domestic servants.
Children working at roadside stalls and teashops.
Children employed in bidi or carpet factories.
Children working at railway stations, shining shoes, or as helpers to stall-owners.
Children working as rag pickers on the streets.
Children working when they should be playing or studying.
So many lost childhoods.
Some of them have no one to take care of them. Some of them are sent to work by their parents whose poverty forces them to do so.
India has attempted to formulate laws to regulate child labour.
The government has prohibited employment of children in hazardous occupations.
The working conditions of children have been regulated in all employment which are not prohibited.
But the problem in Asian countries like India is not a simple one of banning child labour and enforcing the ban.
In the early 1990s there was widespread publicity about the use of child labour in Asian industries. So trade sanctions were introduced by US policy-makers. The US proposed a ban, on import of goods from Asian countries to the US, which used child labour in the production process.
There was especially a great outcry against the Bangladeshi garment industry which supplied clothes to Walmart in the US. So Walmart cancelled its contract with the Bangladeshi manufacturers.
This resulted in mass dismissal of children from the industry. But they did not go back to school. Many of them got employment in hazardous industries. Some became servants. Some took to begging. And some turned to prostitution.
India can take a lesson from this. Obviously just banning child labour will not work.
The solution is not so simple. There is no magic formula.
There should be policies aimed at alleviating poverty simultaneously with literacy drives. Quality education must be available for all children. Merely making schooling up to 14 years mandatory, is of no use, without making it easily accessible.
And gaining an education must result in employment opportunities later on. Poor families losing the income that the child earns, must be given some alternative in the meantime.
Merely trying to enforce labour laws without addressing the underlying causes of child labour is not likely to be of much effect.
Until a multi- pronged effort is made, there will continue to be children at work instead of at school – in tea-shops, in homes of the wealthy, in factories and at street corners.
Many more childhoods lost.