Education Resources

India: Children Today—Citizens Tomorrow!

Children, such as this one photographed in front of the Anganwadi (a government childcare center) in a remote village in the hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, are the key to India's future success. (Photo courtesy of Anusha Bharadwaj and Kim Brouwers)

India Today

"India @ 60 and Rising" is a mantra being echoed the world over. There is no doubt that democracy in India has matured. Its bustling economy is making India one of the top global players. Indian corporations are putting forth their best efforts and moving forward in the race to globalization. Competing or collaborating with industry leaders, corporations are contributing to the booming G.D.P., the thriving I.T. sector, the flourishing economy, and the bustling business process outsourcing (B.P.O.) sector. A lot of work is being outsourced to the third world, and India is a major beneficiary of this trend. India is a textbook example of development by globalization. Opening its borders and connecting to the world economy has brought India impressive growth rates. But is India really doing better?

The figures generally show a rising and powerful India—a dream for most investors, and a delight to all economists as the rupee touches an all-time high versus the dollar. However, this may just be one side of the story. India's economy may have been growing for the last 15 years, but this has lead to strongly unequal development within the country. Only a small part of society has advanced from this growth; the majority is still struggling to survive and may even be worse off than before. Many do not have access to good education and health care. If the government does not address these problems, India will not be able to sustain its growth.

For the purists, much to their dislike, this might seem to be a "mirage." For the social activists, "this could just be the calm before the storm." Statistics, which spell the truth most times, could spell doom to the current development mandate. Let us grapple with some numbers:

  • Children1 constitute more than 40 percent of the population.

  • Official and unofficial figures record 100 million child workers.

  • Almost two out of every three children have faced abuse of some form.

  • The Child sex ratio, according to the 2001 census, is 927 females for every 1,000 males.

  • One out of 16 children dies before he or she attain one year of age.

  • Only 43 percent of childbirths are attended by skilled health professionals.

  • Thirty percent of live births are underweight.

  • Forty-seven percent of children under 5 years of age are underweight.

  • According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, around 1 crore (10 million; 4.5%) children in the 6-14 age group are out of school (by the end of 2003)—compared to 3.54 crore (35.4 million; 18.44%) in 2001. Other sources put it at 4.8 crore (48 million; 25.26%).

  • Of every 10 children who are enrolled in school, 4 drop out at the primary level, 5 by the elementary level, and 7 by the secondary level.

  • Two-thirds of all children who drop out are girls—only Nepal and Pakistan match this statistic in South Asia.

India 2050

Let us here assume that the above figures hold true in the future. What will India be like in 2050? Almost half of India's population would be illiterate, malnourished, abused, and unemployed—and they will be men (as the sex preference would have wiped out a large percentage of women).

India's current economic growth will not be sustainable if the government continues to neglect these problems. Without good education and health care facilities for every child, the future seems bleak, and the euphoria of India's 60th year of independence will die down. A village leader once told me rightly, "Aaj ke bacche kal ka netha banenge" ("Today's children will grow up to be tomorrow's leaders"). Something has to be done now! Growing up in this hostile environment, our children cannot become the nethas (leaders) of tomorrow.

Child Labor and Education—the Inextricable Link

In a country where almost 17 million children work, there is a huge adult force that is being denied labor. Underemployment and unemployment is the plague for the youth today, and at the same time, many schools in the rural hinterlands are being closed as children are dropping out. Children are not going to school and adults are not provided jobs. Does this suggest danger?

Schools are the best place to retain children from entering the workforce. If child labor is abolished the economy will increase as adults can demand better wages and work conditions. At the same time, an increase in the number of children going to school will lead to an increase in more-educated people and to a growing demand for accountability from the teachers. A village that has a good school will definitely have many poor children accessing the school.

Socioeconomic Forces

There are many debates that justify child labor. One of the strongest arguments supporting child labor is that poor children have to work to support the family income. In many cases, where a school is functioning and the teachers are motivated to bring all the children to school, it has been noticed that the poor want to send their children to school. It has been proved that these people can overcome the problem of child labor by a strong commitment to what is best for the children. What is needed is the commitment of the whole community, including teachers, parents, employers, trade unions, and so on.

Nongovernmental organization strategies and government schemes work on the assumption that children from poor families need to work. Thus, they formulate policies that provide financial assistance to families with children that have been removed from work. These strategies have crumbled in the past, as there is never a way of proving the level of income required for a family.

Breaking the Intergenerational Cycle of Poverty

Some children have never seen the inside of a school; others are the first in their family to be educated; still more have dropped out for a variety of reasons. Such children are shy and vulnerable. Even a simple taunt like "you are after all a maid/ shepherd" will send them running back home.

How do we then ensure that a child goes to school? The first step is to make the school a child-friendly place. A child must want to go to school and should enjoy her or his time there. Teachers must also be sensitized to the needs of these children. First-time learners need that extra bit of attention and care. At a time when private schools are dominate, the government schools are the only place where poor children can still find a place.

Road Ahead

After having firmly established that children are the key to India's success, one needs to look at the various measures that have to be put in place. It cannot be a single-point agenda as development is always multi-faceted. Community mobilization is one of the main strategies for establishing a safe environment for children. However, the easiest thing is to start from ourselves. If each of us will no longer tolerate injustice, then half the battle is won.

These are a few action points, but they are just drops in the ocean.

  • Abolish child labor.

  • Improve the primary education system.

  • Ensure proper functioning of primary health care centers and various other intuitions responsible for child health.

  • Provide children with enough spaces to express their opinions.

  • Empower children with various important laws like the right to education, the right to information, etc.

  • Decentralize the education and health departments. Local monitoring will provide a new lease of life for these institutions.

  • Induce more energy in the local governments. Elected representatives need to take responsibility for all development in their areas.

1 Children: A child domiciled in India attains majority at the age of 18.

Published as part of's Global Education Neighborhood.

Kim Brouwers holds a master's degree in international relations from the University of Amsterdam and is currently involved in the Stop Child Labor Campaign. Anusha Bharadwaj holds a master's degree in rural management from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. She is an activist working for the M. V. Foundation, an organization in India that works for child rights.