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Ending Child Labor in India

India has made encouraging progress in recent years on reducing the number of children forced to work instead of pursuing their education. Unfortunately, recent actions by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are threatening to stall, or even reverse, that progress.

Between 2001 and 2011, according to official figures supplied by the government, the number of child laborers in India declined from 12.6 million to 4.3 million. But in a nation of 1.2 billion people, 400 million of them very poor, these numbers seem suspiciously low. Unicef put the figure at 28 million. Either way, millions of India’s children are denied an education, forced to toil on farms, in small-scale industries and as domestic help.

To fight this scourge, India passed landmark legislation in 2009 guaranteeing free, compulsory primary education. In 2012, it introduced a bill to ban all work by children under the age of 14. Last month, however, the cabinet approved a huge loophole to these laws that would allow children under 14 to work in “family enterprises.”

Its argument was that children’s wages are essential to the survival of poor families and that working children acquire job skills. This flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that children who are forced to sacrifice education for work are doomed to a lifetime of low-wage jobs, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It is also an invitation to endless exploitation: As Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his tireless efforts to end child labor, has pointed out, millions of Indian children who are said to be working in “family” businesses are in fact trafficked into slave labor or sold into bonded labor.

As national policy, it is also incredibly shortsighted. The International Labor Organization estimates that economies reap a sevenfold return on every dollar spent on eradicating child labor and investing in education and child social services. Yet in addition to opening the “family enterprises” loophole, the Modi government cut deeply into government education and child nutrition programs when it slashed total funds for children from a little over 4 percent of the previous year’s budget to just 3.26 percent.

Mr. Modi was elected partly on the promise of spurring economic growth and lifting millions out of poverty. Putting more children to work while cutting funds for education and child nutrition is not the way to achieve this.

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