India's Progress in Reducing Child Labor; New Economy's Need for Skilled Labor Sends India's Youth Back to School

Article excerpt

Schooling has traditionally not been an option for many children in India's rural families. With poverty widespread and high-skilled jobs scarce, rural children typically have had to leave school early and join the workforce, earning what little they could to help feed their families.

But technology may be changing things for the better. Tech-based industries are growing quickly around India and are desperate for educated workers. Newly available jobs in software design, engineering, and communications promise young people lifestyles that they could never achieve with manual labor. Growing numbers of parents are taking note and are urging their children to stay in school.

School enrollment in India has consequently made a boost. UNESCO reports that, whereas 82% of boys and 69% of girls completed primary school in 2002, 87% of boys and 82% of girls completed primary school in 2005. Secondary school enrollment rose from 55% of boys and 41% of girls in 2002 to 59% of boys and 49% of girls in 2005.

"[Parents] see that there is this upward mobility, and the people who are benefiting are, more often than not, educated," says Leona Christy, program manager for Pratham USA, the U.S.-based support arm of Pratham, one of many Indian education advocacy groups that work for more and better Indian schools.

In villages around India, parents and village leaders attend Pratham-sponsored workshops on teaching and school administration methods. They also organize into PTA-like groups that press teachers, school administrators, and district officials for needed building improvements and more rigorous curricula.

"The concept of holding the government accountable is slowly building up," says Christy.

Pratham field coordinators teach parents basic math and reading, and also encourage parents to have their children read in front of them. Even if the parents cannot read, they can see if their children struggle over words.

Without parental advocacy, teachers may collect their salaries but skip teaching their students. If parents see a child is not learning, they can take the matter up with the teachers or school authorities.

These developments mark a considerable change from years past, when those parents might have expected their children to forgo study for work.

"Many would have said to you, 'Why would we [send our children to school]? They are only going to work on the farm, anyway,'" Christy says. "Now, they are seeing the opportunities."

Even those children who remain on the farm benefit from more schooling. Educated farmers are better able to weather food price fluctuations, droughts, and crop diseases by supplementing their farming income with nonfarm income, according to Arvind Panagariya, Columbia University professor of Indian political economy.

"They now find some other employment for a few months of the year. Sometimes they come into factories; they just come in for short periods and then they're gone," he says.

Education also enables farmers to stay more attuned to farming innovations. In 2006, the food and tobacco company ITC undertook construction of 6,500 "e-Choupal" kiosks (choupal is a Hindi word for village meeting place) that consist of crop depots with computer terminals. …