The Intersection of Caste and Child Labour in Bihar

Bihar has the third-largest number of child labourers in the country. Although there have been numerous legislations and schemes to address the issue, they could not provide a lasting solution. The need of the hour is to look at the inextricable link between caste and the children who form the workforce, and to devise solutions accordingly.

It is only 5 am, but Pinky and Neelu (names changed) are already engrossed in their regular football practice on the outskirts of Patna. The 16- and 17-year-old footballers from the Ravidassia Scheduled Caste community make it a point to practise two hours every day before they head to work in the fields. They spend gruelling seven to eight hours a day as agricultural labourers, along with their family members, to earn a subsistence wage. The teens are among a handful of girls from their village who play the sport. Juggling demanding farm work with football practice, they barely manage to make it to the school once or twice a month. The girls are under a constant fear that their names could be struck off the school register due to their absenteeism. But, they have no choice and cannot afford to stay away from work. Lamenting about their situation, Neelu says, “Our parents are landless farmers, and we need to work to pay off a steep rent. We cannot even afford nutritious food that we require as football players. So, we consume rice starch to manage our nutrition.” [1]    

The abject poverty experienced by Pinky and Neelu is not an isolated case, but a common feature among the households of SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Bihar. As per the 2011 Census, there are 43.53 lakh child labourers in India, and Bihar stands third in the country with 4.51 lakh children who are engaged in employment (HAQ: Centre for Child Rights 2013; Ministry of Labour and Employment 2011).  

Due to extreme poverty and discrimination, Dalit children in Bihar account for the largest section of child labourers in the state, and are among the most exploited as well.  The 2011 Census points out that a staggering 51% of SCs and 56% of STs live below the poverty line in the state (World Bank Group 2016). The ingrained notions of impurity and untouchability in the state further complicate the everyday discrimination of the communities not just by the upper castes, but also by the non-SC/ST communities. This denies them the access to basic amenities and robs them of employment opportunities. The Dalit children who make it to government schools are also discriminated against, due to the deeply entrenched caste system.

The Interplay of Child Labour and Caste

The link between caste and occupation, which has been the case since time immemorial in the Indian society, finds its expression even among the child labourers in Bihar. A study jointly conducted by the Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, Bihar, in collaboration with San Diego State University, United States, in 2018 in the state to understand the child labour issue reveals that SC/ST children are hand-picked to work as ragpickers, barbers, and cobblers, among other lowly jobs. On the other hand, non-SC/ST children are chosen to labour at parties and weddings, among other events because of the concept of “purity” peddled by those who believe in the caste system.  The study titled "Victims without a Voice: Measuring Worst Forms of Child Labour in the Indian State of Bihar" categorically establishes the relationship between caste and occupation. It needs to be noted that the study was not conducted in rural Bihar, but in urban areas, so one can only imagine the grim reality in the rural areas of the state. Further, the study also finds that the probability of SC/ST children engaged in illegal and hazardous work is higher compared to those from other castes.[2]  

When pushed into working in these caste-based occupations, the discrimination faced by the marginalised children is of unimaginable proportion. Children of the Dom community, who traditionally cremate the dead, are not allowed to work in agriculture. As an unwritten rule, children of the Dom, Valmiki, and poorer Muslim communities are forced to work only as ragpickers. Children from the Musahar community, now recognised as Mahadalits, are never employed in houses as domestic helps. If they ever manage to work in roadside dhabas (food joints), they hide their caste. The stigma is due to the perceived belief of the non-SC employers that the presence of the marginalised could “contaminate” their surroundings.

On the other hand, there is a large-scale migration of the children of Musahar, Pasi, Paswan, and Rajwar communities from Gaya to work in brick kilns in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The working conditions in brick kilns are miserable.[3] Fourteen-year-old Raju (name changed) works nine hours every day and up to 13 hours on the worst days in the brick kiln along with his brother. Usually, he works between 9 am and 6 pm, but not every day is the same. “On the days when I am not able to make bricks out of all the mud that is prepared, I will have to work beyond 6 pm. There are days when I worked till one in the night, and then, I had to come back to work again at nine in the morning the next day!” [4]  

Talking about the extreme form of ostracisation they are subjected to, agricultural labourer Aman (name changed) from Gaya, who belongs to Mahadalit or Majhi caste, says, “Hum neechi jaati ke hain, isiliye humein kharaab khana dete hai, gande barton mein dete hai (Because we belong to low castes, the landlord gives us bad quality food to eat and that too in dirty broken vessels).” Resigned to his fate, Aman adds that they have now “become used to being discriminated.”

Even in terms of wages, Dalit children are underpaid. According to Aman, when they accept payment in grain instead of cash, there is a clear differential treatment. While workers from a Dalit village are given 10 kilograms of grain, workers of non-SC village get 15 kilograms of grain for the same amount of work. “Because we are Dalits, we are given more work to do than others and we are expected to do it without posing any questions. I need money, so I do it. I believe if I would have been literate my fate would not have been so bad,” laments Aman.

When asked about the prevalence of caste-based occupations among child labourers, Shantha Sinha, eminent child rights activist and former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says:

“There is certainly a correlation between Dalit children being stigmatised when it comes to serving of food. There is an element of untouchability in weddings or in Dhabas, etc. But the fundamental issue is that they should not be there in [such places] in the first place. The essential discrimination that the society practises is when children are kept out of school, that is a form of apartheid. That is the biggest divide, and children who are illiterate and have never been to school are marginalised and stigmatised against.” [5]

Discrimination at School

A majority of Dalit and Adivasi children in the state do not attend schools due to the extreme discrimination they face from teachers and fellow students. Although the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates that every child below 14 years of age should be in school, the National Family Health Survey-4 reveals that as many as 55.7% of child labourers in the state stay away from education (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare 2017). A majority of these children are from Dalit and Adivasi communities. Although there are many reasons, the most common one cited by them is discrimination and a condescending attitude they face from both students and teachers in the government schools.   

Pinky recalls that she and her friends from the marginalised communities had been ordered to wash dishes and tiffin boxes by teachers until she lodged a complaint with the school principal. She also adds that she had swept the classroom, and had been forced to sit separately from other students. It does not matter whether they are in a working environment or in a school, they are constantly reminded of their caste. “Paani ka glass alag hota hai chhoti jaati ke liye (The drinking water glass is always separate for people from lower castes),” she adds.

Parth (name changed), who works under a raajmistri (main mason) as a helper, says he faces discrimination not only from teachers, but also from non-SC students. He left the government school after he had a fight with his fellow students, who had forced him to sit on a broken desk in a corner of the classroom. When he stood defiant, a fight ensued, and he was forced to leave the school. Though he joined a private school for a year, he could not afford the fee in the long run, and soon dropped out. Despite knowing that his work on construction sites is marked with danger every day—having to climb several storeys on narrow scaffolding or newly built roofs with sacks on his back— he says he has no option, but to work. “The upper castes would never let us work in hotels, even if I want to,” he rues.  

Another reason why they do not attend schools is the lack of quality education in the government schools and the compulsion that they have to attend private tuition to succeed academically. Since they cannot afford tuition fees, they give up on education completely. “It is not enough to go to school because the teachers there do not teach. We need to go to private tuition separately to study and pass,” informs Suman (name changed).  

In the wake of such impediments, the enrolment of SC and ST children in schools is abysmally low. As per the data of United District Information System for Education 2016–17, the enrolment of SC children at primary school level is 21.2%, and 19.1% in upper primary schools in Bihar. On the other hand, the enrolment of ST children is lower with 1.9% at the primary level and 1.6% at the upper primary level (National University of Educational Planning and Administration 2017). 

Even those who make it to school from these communities often drop out in large numbers due to the reasons discussed above. The elementary school dropout rates for SC and ST children are 51% and 58%, respectively, which are much higher than the 37% dropout rate for non-SC/ST children in the state (Planning Commission of India 2013).

Caste as a Determinant

In keeping with the international conventions and the constitutional provisions, the government has enacted several laws and launched many schemes to eradicate child labour, including the most potent Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 and the National Child Labour Project Scheme of 1987. However, these legislations and provisions could not wipe out child labour because of the failure on the part of successive governments to see the inextricable link between caste and the children who form the workforce. The need of the hour is to treat child labour as a caste issue, and work out specific plans to save SC and ST children from child labour. One needs to understand that the impoverishment inherited by these communities due to their socio-economic conditions forces their children to contribute to the family income, and therefore, a blanket approach to the issue would not provide envisaged results.    

The state-specific SC sub-plans are a useful starting point in order to rework targeted programmes to address the issue of the child labour among the SCs. Initiated during the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980–85) by the centre, the concept of the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan, which many states follow even today, is an effort to prevent the diversion of funds earmarked for SC development to other programmes of the government, and ensures that the targeted community is benefited. Generally, governments at the centre and states slash budgetary allocations of welfare schemes in the event of a shortfall for their other popular programmes. More often than not, SC and ST departments end up as the worst causalities in this regard. But, today, the budgetary allocations for SC and ST sub-plans are protected by law, and governments cannot use these funds as they wish. As there is no specific mention of child labour in the SC sub-plans today, there is a need to incorporate the issue in the plans, and devise measures accordingly to eradicate child labour.

The case of the Bihar SC sub-plan is no different because it does not specifically mention the issue of child labour among the SCs. The prevention of child labour forms a part of other large schemes and measures that grossly overlook the caste angle. For instance, the Bihar Mahadalit Vikas Mission, a government body that aims to address the deprivation among the Dalits, talks about the upliftment of 21 Mahadalit castes, but does not say anything about the prevalence of child labour among the SCs (Bihar Mahadalit Vikas Mission). Similarly, the Poshak Yojana, which aims to make schools attractive by providing food and uniform to children, does not talk about the discrimination faced by Dalit children in schools that results in them dropping out.   

Of all the programmes of the Bihar government, only the State Action Plan for Elimination of Child Labour talks about the inherent caste angle. Under this particular plan, it mandates the authorities concerned to create awareness about child labour in areas where the population of SC, ST, and backward classes is significant (Labour Resource Department 2017).

Explaining the importance of specific schemes, Uday Kumar of the Dalit Association for Social and Human Rights Awareness (DASHRA), Bihar, says, “Firefighting is not enough. The root cause needs to be identified. Alternative and sustainable livelihoods have to be provided to extremely impoverished SC and ST families so that their children are not pushed into child labour. If need be, pensions should be provided to old and incapacitated SC and ST adults.”[6]   

As regards the retention of SC and ST children in schools, the provisions of the RTE Act should be enforced strictly by providing qualified teachers and maintaining an optimal pupilteacher ratio, among others. There should be regular monitoring from the authorities concerned to ensure that quality education is imparted, and there is no scope for discrimination against any child.

Kumar recommends a three-pronged strategy to end child labour among SC and ST children. First, SC and ST families in the village should be identified, and the local panchayats should be sensitised about the scourge of child labour. Then, there should be supervision from the authorities concerned to check if there is any discrimination in the schools practised by students against their peers on the basis of caste.   

“It is not as if there are no sufficient allocations for these things under the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan. Every department has a provision to make special programmes for these socially disadvantaged groups. What seems to be a stumbling block is the attitudinal problems of the implementing agencies,” adds Kumar.   

In conclusion, if the government is indeed serious about eliminating child labour, then it has to be looked at and addressed through the caste lens. It is only when authorities acknowledge that the reality of Dalit and Adivasi working children is vastly different from that of others and then frame and implement specific targeted programmes, that a “Child-labour-free Bihar” can be achieved.

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