Shahbuddin Ahmed pants for breath even after walking short distances. He is 13, and years of working in pesticide-ridden cotton fields have left him with chronic bronchitis.
His sister Shameema, two years younger, suffers even more. She is wracked by a cough that reverberates deep in her chest.
These young laborers are two among hundreds of children who work in India’s cotton fields and suffer respiratory ailments as a result. Their employers provide no masks or other protective wear.
World Child Labor Day was commemorated yesterday, but in India the event is merely symbolic. Politicians pledge to eradicate the scourge, but such promises are little more than empty words, says child rights activist Sangita Khosla.
Sixty million children work in India despite recent legislation, the Right to Education Act, which stipulates that every child between four and 14 years of age should be in school and not in the workforce, according to various child-related NGOs.
Government estimates put the figure at only 20 million.
Bhuwan Ribhru, a lawyer for the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, says that while a child laborer earns 15 rupees (less than US$1), and adult laborer makes 115 rupees.
“Thus, the employers make millions of rupees in profit annually [from child workers].”
Child labor in India is practiced mostly in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, at roadside stalls and in construction.
According to a National Sample Survey Office, 67 percent of child workers are agriculture laborers – with the highest number working the cotton fields in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh states.
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